With awareness about the nature of Asperger’s syndrome growing, much of the population now understands that people on the spectrum are confounded by social cues that come naturally to the rest of us. A few years ago, my wife and I saw the Broadway play based on Mark Haddon’s best-selling 2003 novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, about a teenage boy in England who struggles with the expectations of society. The show’s staging brilliantly conceptualized the intense chaos careening around inside the 15-year-old Christopher’s head, with an endless feed of mathematic equations and fragments of language streaming frantically across the black box of the theater. Pounding electronic music and hot white lights helped depict the boy’s inner turmoil, which, like Sam’s, is forever masked by a stony facial expression.
In Utah, I began to see that Sam was giving me a gift. Sam, the kid who never answers when we ask which composer’s music he’s playing on his keyboard. Sam, the kid who often signs greeting cards with a single dot. Though he rarely ever smiles or laughs, his sense of humor—or, more accurately, his sense of the absurd—is acute. He gets David Lynch. When I told him recently that he needed to have a flu shot, he deadpanned, “What if I get autism?”
Adolescence was hard for him, but as he enters adulthood, he’s learning to be proud of the traits that make him unique. I think, for Sam, the barren terrain of Utah represented the nearest thing to a moonscape he could find on Earth. What would it be like to inhabit a distant satellite alone? I’m not sure I can imagine it, but I sure do believe Sam can.
We spent a couple of days driving through Arches, hiking out to get a close look at Landscape Arch, the long, thin, bridge-like formation in the area known as Devils Garden. It took a bit of off-roading in our rented SUV, up several boulder-strewn switchbacks, to reach the potash evaporation pond, about 20 miles southwest of Arches. At one point, we left the car behind until it was a tiny speck in the distance, hoofing across a wide expanse of high desert and clambering up a huge slab of rock to get a view of the pond. There was no activity, no sign of life, behind the mining facility’s prohibitive fencing. Sam’s eyes were wide as he scanned the vast human emptiness of our surroundings. He lingered, taking plenty of photos.
Some days that week he talked a lot. About Lynch’s movies, about the fact that a bison is not a buffalo. There were other days when we drove for long stretches in silence. Our family learned long ago that if Sam is feeling overwhelmed, it’s best to just let him power down.
Each night brought a new experience. I’d booked Airbnbs along the route, including a “glamping” tent with two full-size beds on the outskirts of Moab and, later in the week, a rustic cabin on a horse farm near Ketchum, Idaho. Sam is a creature of habit, but he is well aware that the time has come for him to challenge himself. His parents will not always be by his side when the world requires him to navigate it. As we pressed on, each day brought a new set of questions: Where will we eat? Where will we pee? Will we be expected to meet our Airbnb host?
At one point, we sat down for a late dinner on the patio of a hip little restaurant his mother would have loved. I brought along two pens and a notepad. While we waited for our orders to arrive, I asked Sam to try to write down as many of our stops as he could recall. I did it, too. When we were finished, he was thrilled to see that he’d remembered more than I had. Evidently, he’s a better reporter than his father.
By the time we reached Boise, where we were charmed by the tidy Craftsman-style bungalows, Sam was exhausted from our excursion. After touring the Old Idaho Penitentiary and stopping for some gourmet ice cream, I left Sam to rest in our cottage rental while I explored some more. At a supply store, I bought him a gift, a small figurine of a bison. Unsurprisingly, he hardly acknowledged it, and soon we returned home.
I used to change my cellphone screen saver often, but since our trip to Arches, I’ve kept the same image from our travels out West on my home screen. It’s a pristine clay outcropping under a cloudless azure sky.
Sam still lives at home, but he’s working to change that; he just completed a computer coding boot camp and is now applying for jobs in the industry. And each time I go into his room, my eyes are drawn to the little souvenir that has pride of place on his desk: a plastic bison.