The atmosphere Isaac generates can be an intense one, engulfed as he is with his enhanced emotions. There’s a constant radiation of feeling, as immediate and in-your-face as the barely tamed puppy at the front door. Of course, Isaac being Isaac, supercharged honesty and love to the factor of ten power through.
Those enhanced emotions – too many to list – shrink and expand with us catching on, then playing catch up. Attempting to achieve emotional parity with Isaac has us shifting around like virtual Venn diagrams.
Much sentiment over the years has centered round the expected autistic responses. His multitude of mini amplifications:
Any form of dysregulation brought on by knockabout sociability, clutter, hindrance and general haphazardness may initiate an electricity, infectiously so – as he ricochets raucously between the throng at gatherings, get togethers and hangouts. Hellos, hugs and high fives.
But as a natural ‘human’ order mysteriously takes place amid the chaos – people peeling off, the pace of chitchat and energy shifting, all that intuiting that’s so confusing to him – a tetchiness starts that can escalate swiftly.
Though more and more in these situations, given space, sensitivities and an electronic device, he can curate his own calm. Likewise if an exit is preferable and permitted, a drive home of lamppost spotting levels and lulls him. Indeed this type of tranquil can be strangely seductive for me too. A monastic silence reached via his transport watching, real or virtual, transporting me too to a yogic type trance.
Then there are the times when he’s possessed by foreboding feelings of anticipation and agitation triggered by his ever alert emotional memory. The appearance, however transient, of a dog at the last visit to somewhere we intend to revisit, miniscule in my mind will be mind-blowing in his. He will attempt to manage with incessant questioning and planning. But irritation, anger and sadness may wait impatiently in line. The emotional memory paralyzing events from happening. A fear freezing his every next move.
Indeed, another slice of recent neurological research gets to the nub of this: MRI scans of autistic people pinpointing enlarged activity around the amygdala, the region of the brain where emotional memory resides.
When out and about, we ping pong ideas to soften both our emotional responses, hustling out what happens next. I’ll tolerate the tedium of an extra train stop and surveying of yet more 1996 refurbished Jubilee line stock; he’ll accept a restaurant pit stop despite a dyspraxia-discomforting restaurant table and large inflexibility of food intake.
Paternal pride is a swollen emotion for me that pops its head up when on the rare occasion he responds to my request for a demonstration of his photogenic, quite frankly magical, memory. Which is matched only by his supreme awkwardness that I’m impressed by something as obvious as what happened on this day last year, or that when I name a bus number, any number, he’ll recite the whole damn route. Whilst I’ll be ‘wow’, he’ll be ‘whatever’. Dad, son, repelling magnets.
The list of enhanced emotions can go on. Many, perhaps, autistic in their nature. But there’s a relatively recent phenomenon that’s unexpected, and a growing presence in the pie chart. I may have laughed a few years ago if humour had attached itself in any way to Isaac’s experience and interaction with life. Now, beautifully so, not at all.
It’s actually more than humour; it’s the emotion of happiness in its plumpest form. From cracking up, to smiles (internal and out), to joy, physical and verbal gaggery, charming the pants off, and the glowing contentment of simple and human warmth. All articulations welcome.
Jonathan Safran Foer, in his novel, “Here I am”, proposes that early parenthood, with its acute vulnerability and hypervigilance, means that there is “too much love for happiness”. I may have kept happiness off limits a little too long in order tender for Isaac in totality – with the care and attention I felt compelled to summon. If I kicked my happiness into the kerb it was because of fear, sorrow and a sprinkling of anger. Whether he was happy for not.
Conversely, happiness now surrounds us, as we collectively traverse a less scary universe that’s maybe more bearable – well, we’re certainly happier to test it.
Happiness is here, there and everywhere.
Indeed, Isaac’s commentary comes ever more laden with comedy. Quite literally:
“What are you up to?” I’ll ask him unimaginatively over FaceTime, expecting a Pavlovian, idly typical response of “Not much”. Far from it, instead he’ll affirm back with pure logic, “I’m speaking to you silly daddy!”
Or when we WhatsApp and he tells me our friend Richard has come over, I’ll say, “Ah, do say hello”. Incredulous and a little put out, he’ll type back instantly, “I said hello when he arrived, I’m not rude, and I’m polite!”
And what about that time in Pret, when he went to practice his shopping skills. The formality and dedication of asking for a cookie has to be seen to be believed. There’s a combination of earnestness and endearment with Isaac that feels strangely unachievable and unworkable for most people; what with his politeness and pronouncements eliciting such joy and adorable amusement.
From his military stand-to-attention greeting that cuts through and captivates (genuinely so!) to a fully formed request and desire for the staff to have the happiest of days.
The problem arises when so delighted and charmed were the staff that they gave it to him free of charge – no money, they absolutely insisted.
“I can’t do that. You have to pay, otherwise it’s stealing! These people. I don’t believe it. Am I in trouble??”
By now the whole place is cooing over this funny, eccentric, adorable young man. Happiness and humour are palpable.
Those first two examples especially show the laughs that being literal effortlessly brings. The unintentional rug pull of language. One could query how deliberate Isaac is in the engineering of this humour. It’s his clamping to pure fact that eclipses any comic ambition.
But the smiles it evokes derive him much pleasure. And as comprehension has developed, there’s a glint in his eye, which suggests he knows what he’s doing – it’s what comes most naturally to him. It’s one of the things that make him special. And it chimes with his oft delivered full stop at the end of such comments: “yes, I do have autism. You’re right, daddy.”
And his joke delivery at the brilliantly zany school shows confirm he’s complicit. Even if his bossiness at when people should or shouldn’t laugh compounds the hilarity.
But laughing at him we are definitely not. It’s a thick line between that and the one we occupy; not a fine one. Because there’s a broader theme to his humour, that’s a firmer fit within happiness. It’s joyous and inclusive.
More Ken Dodd than Ricky Gervais.
(I can’t say I’ve dissolved my caustic approach to life – dare I say some would define me by it. But as ever, autism and its attributes enforce adaption where relevant. Nicely so.)
Music Hall entertainer sounds about right for Isaac and for what all of us in his wake experience – he really can bring us “happiness, happiness, the greatest gift that we possess…” (Even if there’s an element of attrition to his disrupter of events, any event, with scripted silliness and random repetitions, somehow all are won over.)
I mean, what about his malleable face and gurning repertoire – now that’s very reminiscent. More to the point, there’s his physical kneading and moulding of mine. Amusing many whilst causing me more than a morsel of pain. Squeezing my nose whilst crying with laughter causes much merriment. “But he likes it, his eyes are wet with happy tears, not sad tears! And he’s smiling,” he’ll claim – my pained smile clearly too nuanced for him.
Physical humour from Mr Bean to the Marx Brothers enthral Isaac, witnessing his breathless hysterics whilst watching, make us chortle and chuckle as much as the shows themselves.
What Dodd did lots was discover huge humour within language. The description of alternative comedy as “every other joke being funny” has a sublime accuracy that could come direct from Isaac’s lips. So much word play is predicated on the sort of truths Isaac detects.
Plus there’s just that rhythm of language, certain words which crack Isaac up. Almost onomatopoeic, all flowery and funky sounding names, Ken Dodd may have “knotty ash” and “feather dusters”; Isaac has his own terms that tickle him like “fiddlesticks” and a raft of zany food combinations he’s created – from “mussels in mustard sauce” to “tummy’s the size of ripe melons”, to “scrunched apples in custard crumble”. When he does a swift google image to add a visual dimension to the craziness and he’s a goner. It also goes without saying that wallops, bangs and odd sounds can simply send him off. The more it’s incongruous, the more he’s in stitches.
Trails of laughter follow Isaac, the feedback from wherever he’s been always features funny in the title. Other stuff too, that is entwined with all sorts of intense emotions. But almost always funny. And that’s something to be very happy about.