Autism, language, and family
by Keith Taylor
From the May, 2014 issue
In An Archaeology of Yearning, Kalamazoo College English professor Bruce Mills gives a completely loving but totally honest account of living with his autistic son, Jacob, now a young adult, and the ways Jacob's needs and actions have shaped his family. The result is a deeply moving memoir.
Jacob's inability to communicate or respond to the usual signs of affection, or to find the words to articulate his often chaotic emotions, forced his father--the man of letters--to find new ways to understand his son. Mills has had to find new metaphors for the old and essential relationship of parent and child. Partly because Jacob is able to express himself through art--by drawing complete and exact Disney characters and creating his own often incomprehensible scenarios for those characters--Mills understands his own search in terms of the exploration of cave art. Early in the book, he writes, "Now here I am mixing words like red ochre in my hands, lining my sounds like cave art, caught up in my own private symbols. What is happening? What is this red on my tongue?"
The bravery of An Archaeology of Yearning is that Mills never stops trying to answer those questions. After wonderful descriptions of Jacob's childhood, of the effect Jacob has had on his sister, of the physical exhaustion that can come from raising a child on the autism spectrum, Mills writes, "My son eludes me. And, no matter my delicate reasoning, I still panic at how little I may know him and how little he understands me. I observe, theorize, invent, and narrate in order to shoulder away his seeming indifference." How, he asks himself, "can I move beyond the tendency to conceive of autism as limitation rather than another means of knowing?"
It is Mills' yearning to understand his son that takes him down into those caves like the archaeologists who study the art there. "Yearning ... requires a humble imagination, the need to dedicate all of our ways of knowing to discerning with discipline and keen sight the makers and the nature of their making ... [I]t is easy to succumb to the belief that difference signals the impossibility of full and meaningful connection ..."
Yet Mills continues to devote his considerable abilities to finding that connection. His effort makes this one of the bravest books you will read this year.
Bruce Mills reads from An Archaeology of Yearning at Literati on May 7.
[Originally published in May, 2014.]