Understanding Robert… Fifteen Years later.

When Robert was 4, 5, 6, and 7 years old, he often drove with me to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston to pick up his sister, Amanda, after her art classes.

At that time, it was not easy to drag Robert everywhere. He had a tendency to bolt whenever he could  and an uncanny ability to wiggle out of my hand. I had to be always on guard and, well,  that was stressful.  Still, for more than a year, no major tantrum had happened during those trips and I began to relax.  Even more, I  decided to use our weekly expeditions to the Museum to make short visits to galleries.  Just one room, or a part of one room. A few pictures, or a few sculptures. Just a few. We stopped in front of the artifact, and looked.  Well, I looked, and encouraged Robert to look as well. He glanced a few times. I hardly remember my comments.  I know they were short and obvious.  And if I asked Robert any question it had to be only about colors, as colors were the only things he could name. The simplicity and banality of our artistic critiques probably offended more sophisticated visitors, as they scurried away from us, as soon as they heard our sort of a dialogue.

Sometimes, we didn’t talk at all as we slowly walked through the sections of the Museum that displayed musical instruments, Japanese tea sets, Chinese furniture, or Egyptian Mummies.

After  ten minutes long encounters with art, we returned to the Rotunda where Amanda was  putting last touches on art of her own. A few more strokes of a brush and the three of us were on the way home.

Once, however,  we returned too early.  The class was already winding itself up, but Amanda needed 15 more minutes to finish.  I decided that Robert and I would wait for her outside on the sunny and breathy stairs in front of the main entrance. As I started leaving, Robert spread himself on the  tile floor, screaming and kicking. With huge difficulties and a  lot of embarrassment I picked him up and carried him outside.  On the way out,  he demonstrated a full range of his abilities to free himself from my hold.  Like a fluid he seeped out of my arms and not once I had to pick him up again gathering all his kicking and wiggling parts.

I was not prepared for that behavior. I did not expect it.  I didn’t know what to do. I wondered how I would survive the next fifteen minutes.  I was petrified of going back to the  museum with this untamed creature in my arms. I was hoping he would calm himself down.

To my surprise, he did.  And just in time.  When I started going up the stairs back to the museum,  Robert didn’t try to wiggle out of my hand.  He made a few groaning sounds to let me know that he still held a grudge, but at least he didn’t attempt to escape.

I am not sure  if Amanda noticed anything. If she did, she didn’t let me know.

For the next few years, Amanda continued with her art classes, but Robert and I stopped visiting the galleries. I was too scared to go back not knowing what caused this tantrum so we waited on the stairs until Amanda came out.

We resumed our visits to the Museum four or five years later.  We don’t  often go there  as Robert prefers Science Museum in Boston or Museum of Natural History in New York, but we still do go there from time to time.  And there never was another incident.

It took me 15 years to understand the reasons for the tantrum.  Just a couple days ago it came to me, that Robert had tried to prevent me from leaving the place without his sister.  She was always coming with us, but on that day, I was, in his eyes, abandoning her.  He could not allow that.  He wanted her to come with us.   But how could he share his concerns with me when he wasn’t even able to pronounce her name?

I should have known better.  Around the same time, another incident happened.  When the car we were driving started making funny noises, I  left it at the nearby gas station.  As we walked home, Robert protested vehemently every step we were making.  He did not want to go home.  He ran in the opposite direction. Amanda ran after him, caught him, and waited for me to carry him home. I did.    I immediately understood that Robert wanted to get our car back.  He was upset that we left it behind.  The car was a part of our family and we abandoned it.

If  I understood Robert’s motives in regards to our car, why I didn’t understand Robert when he protested leaving his sister in the Museum? Why did I believe that Robert was so attached to our car that he couldn’t tolerate leaving it at the gas station, but didn’t realize that Robert was even more concerned about his sister being abandoned at the Museum?

Such dissonance, sadly, came from my own faulty perception of Robert.  I saw his autism first, and the “normal” boy later. So it was harder for me to acknowledge Robert’s affection toward his sister, than his attachment to the car.

I regret that fifteen years ago, I didn’t understand what Robert tried to tell me.  Had I understood it, we would make more trips to the Museum galleries, talking about colors and attracting patronizing scorns of sophisticated consumers of art. Sure, I regret that. But  what really pains me today is that I did not realize what Robert was thinking at that time and thus  I could connect neither with his feelings nor his thoughts.