The Life-Changing Thing George W. Bush and Bill Clinton Taught Me About My Autistic Son
I was so worried about having the perfect father-son relationship that I almost missed the incredible gift in front of me.
Glenn Glasser for Reader's Digest
My wife, my children, and I stood in front of a white, seamless wall, our noses practically touching its surface. Suddenly, the wall opened—it was a hidden door to the Oval Office.
“Come on in, Fournier!” shouted George W. Bush. “Who ya’ dragging in?”
It was my last day covering the White House for the Associated Press, and this 2003 visit was a courtesy traditionally afforded to departing correspondents. I introduced my wife, Lori, and daughters, Holly and Abby, before turning to my son, Tyler, five. “Where’s Barney?” Tyler asked.
The Scottish terrier ran in, and Bush said, “Let’s do a photo!”
As the most powerful man on earth posed, my son launched into a one-sided conversation. “Scottish terriers are called Scotties; they originated from Scotland; they can be traced back to a female named Splinter II; President Roosevelt had one …”
I cringed. Tyler is loving and brilliant, but he is what polite company calls awkward. He doesn’t know when he’s being too loud or talking too much. He can’t read facial expressions to tell when somebody is sad, curious, or bored. I’ve watched adults respond to Tyler with annoyed looks or pity.
But Bush was enchanted. When my son paused, he changed the subject with a joke. “Look at your shoes,” the president told Tyler. “They’re ugly. Just like your dad’s.” Tyler laughed.
We were walking out when Bush grabbed me by the elbow. “Love that boy,” he said, holding my eyes. I thought I understood what he meant. It took me years to realize my mistake.
Courtesy Ron Fournier
Missing the Connection
Fathers and sons don’t always know how to talk to one another, which is why we have sports. I never felt closer to my dad than when we played catch. The film Field of Dreams—and its idealized notion of fatherhood—makes me cry every time. I assumed that my son would be an athlete and we’d find common ground on a baseball diamond. But Tyler didn’t like athletics, and he was terrible when forced to try. I know, because I forced him to try for years.
Lori and I believed that Tyler needed the exercise. We also felt he needed to be part of a team. At school, he was struggling academically and socially. One playdate rarely led to a second. He had few hobbies or interests and was fixated on those he had: telling jokes; visiting bookstores; playing video games; building Lego models; and watching TV shows about animals, U.S. history, and the presidency.
After a dozen years of butting heads about athletics, Tyler and I came to an agreement. He could give up sports if he exercised three days a week and joined an extracurricular club. “You got a deal,” he said. Then he grew quiet. I asked what was wrong. “I was afraid you wouldn’t like me as much if I stopped playing sports.”
When Tyler was 12, Lori was watching the TV show Parenthood one night, and she recognized our son in the character of Max Braverman. Max was sweet and smart. He was also rude, obsessed with insects, and prone to meltdowns. His parents ricocheted among exasperation, guilt, and fear. Max had Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism.
“Tyler might be autistic,” she told me. “Watch the show.” I did. Suddenly, it seemed clear what was wrong with our boy.
[pullquote] If Tyler felt alienated, it was because we had failed to acknowledge—and accept—his differences. [/pullquote]
Lori found Mittie Quinn, a psychologist, who gave Tyler a battery of tests. Seven years after the Oval Office visit, my wife and I walked into Quinn’s office to hear the results. “Your boy is fascinating for somebody like me,” Quinn said. “He’s got all kinds of stuff going on. But he’s just a charming, charming kid.” She said that Tyler had a pretty classic case of Asperger’s.
Labeled little professors by the pediatrician who first identified the syndrome, Aspies can be taught social skills. Especially suited for instruction, Quinn said, are boys like Tyler who are on the high-functioning end of the autism and Asperger’s scale.
Then she dropped the bomb: “He scored himself as [above] average on depression,” Quinn said. Tyler would eventually lead a happy and successful life, but for now, she told us, “he’s sad. Nobody understands him. Kids make fun of him, and he’s left out.” Thankfully, he had a sense of humor to prop him up. She added, “Do you know what Tyler said when I told him he needed to show more empathy? He gave me a confident smile and said, ‘I know. I’m working on that.’ ”
It was time for me and Lori to do some work. If Tyler felt alienated, it was because we had failed to acknowledge—and accept—his differences. I was so focused on the conceit that my son would be like Kevin Costner’s character in Field of Dreams that I failed to see the son I had.
Father-Son “Guilt Trips”
Lori, the true hero of this story, sprang into action. First, she got our son transferred to a school with a program for high-intellect and mainstreamed Aspies—a move that Tyler now says was “life changing.” Then, she persuaded me to drop my objection to his taking stronger medications to help counteract his severe attention-deficit disorder.
But the hardest thing was figuring out how to integrate Tyler into society. Lori enrolled him in a therapy group with other socially awkward boys. More than that, though, he needed something social he could lose himself in. So Lori sent us on the road together. “He would feel valued if you did this with him,” she said, inadvertently unearthing a wellspring of guilt. If I had been around more, would we have diagnosed Tyler’s condition sooner?
Lori had a redemption plan. “You can use a job that took you away from Tyler to help him,” she said, suggesting we visit sites connected to presidents because Tyler loves history and I spent my career on the White House beat.
I called them guilt trips. We traveled to the homes and/or libraries of Presidents Washington, Theodore Roosevelt (Tyler’s favorite), John and John Quincy Adams, Kennedy, Ford, Clinton, and Bush. At Lori’s urging, I also arranged meetings with two presidents I had covered, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush (which would be Tyler’s second encounter with Bush).
The project gave Tyler and me weeks alone together that might have otherwise been devoted to my work and his video games. Tyler got to road test his lessons from social-skills classes and therapy, discovering how to communicate and connect.
“There is a 90 percent chance that George Washington stood on that rock while he surveyed for the C&O Canal,” a park ranger in Great Falls, Virginia, said. “Well,” Tyler replied, “there’s a 10 percent chance he was never even here.” The ranger laughed and said, “That’s the first time somebody has called me on that, son.” He and Tyler spent the next ten minutes swapping obscure anecdotes about the nation’s first president.
I came to see Tyler through the eyes of others—a skill he, too, was trying to master—and felt proud. In Quincy, Massachusetts, Tyler dominated the guide’s time during a tour of the Adams homesteads. For every story the ranger told, Tyler had a question or an anecdote. I silenced him until an elderly woman noticed. “What happened to that nice young fellow with all the smart questions?” she asked, turning to me. “You didn’t tell him to shush, did you?”
Finally, I learned to admire Tyler’s quiet grit. A therapist had called him courageous, which I hadn’t understood. How could a boy afraid of bees, needles, and dark rooms be brave? But the boy who faces his fears—to introduce himself to new people every day, for instance—might be the bravest person I know.
A Visit with Bill Clinton
On our second-to-last trip, Tyler and I went to Little Rock, Arkansas, in March 2012 to meet Bill Clinton. The former president opened the door to his suite atop his official library. Walking over to the windows, Clinton and I pointed to buildings: the capitol dome, beneath which we both had worked; the shuttered remains of the newspaper where I was a statehouse reporter; the headquarters of one of his first political benefactors.
Tyler pointed to a picture, jolting us out of our reverie. “It’s hard to find a picture of two polar bears fighting.”
“You like that?” Clinton asked. “You interested in polar bears?”
“Yes,” Tyler replied, repeating at high speed: “It’shardtofindapictureoftwopolarbearsfighting.”
“Take it.” Clinton pulled the picture off the shelf; it was actually the cover of a book called Polar Dance: Born of the North Wind.
“No, sir,” Tyler said, “I couldn’t possibly accept this.”
He must have sounded overly formal, but I was relieved to watch Tyler’s training take hold. At home, he had begun to greet me and Lori by saying stiffly, in his unusually deep voice, “And how was your day?”
Clinton pooh-poohed Tyler’s objections and led us to a table with three overstuffed chairs. Tyler sat rigid at first, but after 45 minutes, his hands were folded calmly in his lap and his knees were crossed—mirroring Clinton’s posture—as he and the former president excitedly shared their passion for Theodore Roosevelt.
“He had asthma and all that when he was a kid, but when he grew up, he became famous for being really tough,” Tyler said. “I actually heard once that a guy insulted him, so he punched him.”
“Have you guys been out to Sagamore Hill yet, Tyler?”
“Did you love it?”
“It was awesome,” Tyler said. “All those trophies everywhere.”
“Neat. I’m a hu-u-ge Theodore Roosevelt fan,” Clinton said, stretching out his vowel.
He pulled out a 1919 edition of Roosevelt’s letters to Roosevelt’s children, signed it, and gave it to Tyler. “I read in the notes my staff gave me that you were a big Roosevelt fan, and the moment in history when he was president … was the moment in history that most closely approximates the period I served …” And off he went. If you’ve spent time around Clinton, you’ve heard this: Roosevelt was the bridge to the 20th century, just as Clinton’s presidency was the bridge to the 21st.
Clinton’s monologue lasted ten minutes, and Clinton didn’t notice that Tyler was bored. Suddenly, I thought: If even Clinton could miss social cues, why worry so much about my son?
“Nice guy,” Tyler said later. “He talked a lot about himself and his stuff.”
“Like you, son?”
Courtesy Nelson Chenault
A Visit with George W. Bush
For our last trip, Tyler and I went to George W. Bush’s Dallas office. The ex-president had his feet propped on a desk and a coffee cup marked “POTUS” in his hands.
“Do you like school?” Bush asked.
“Pretty good,” Tyler replied.
“Do you like to read?”
“Yeah. I read all the time. I don’t have a favorite topic.”
“Fiction? Nonfiction? Sports?”
“I don’t know much about sports.”
“I really don’t like mysteries.”
“Most 14-year-olds don’t like to read,” Bush said, stretching for a compliment.
Worried that the conversation was going nowhere, I reminded Tyler to say what Clinton had told us.
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “Bill Clinton sends his best.”
Bush smiled. “We’ve been friends,” he said. “We’ve shared experiences. We’re like brothers.”
I nervously changed the subject to sports. Bush engaged with me but turned back to Tyler.
“So, Tyler, at 14 this is probably an unfair question to ask, but do you have any idea what you’d like to be when you get older?”
“Maybe a comedian.”
“Maybe a what?” Bush said, a bit surprised.
“Well,” Bush replied, “I’m a pretty objective audience. You might want to try a couple of your lines out on me.”
“Nah,” Tyler demurred. “I don’t have any material.”
“Ah, interesting,” Bush said. “I’ve met a lot of people. You know how many people ever said, ‘I think I’d like to make people laugh’? You’re the only guy. That’s awesome.”
Bush had connected. With an impish smile, he told Tyler about the time that rocker and humanitarian Bono was scheduled to visit the White House. Bush’s aides worried about their boss. Bush told us, “[Chief of Staff] Josh Bolten said, ‘Now, you know who Bono is, don’t you?’ I said, ‘Yeah, he’s married to Cher.’ ”
“Get it?” Bush asked Tyler. “Bone-oh. Bahn-oh.”
Afterward, I asked Tyler about the Bono joke. He replied, “Sounds like something goofy you would say.”
For me, the exchange was an eye-opener. Rather than being thrown by Tyler’s idiosyncrasies, Bush rolled with them. He responded to every clipped answer with another question. Bush, a man who famously doesn’t suffer fools or breaches of propriety, gave my son the benefit of the doubt. I realized that people were more perceptive of and less judgmental toward Tyler than I was.
Tyler Teaches Me
Thanks to the team—doctors, therapists, teachers—that Lori put together, our son is learning to connect and belong, and we know he will be a happy, thriving adult. Rather than sweat over his Asperger’s, I see how much I’d miss if he wasn’t an Aspie—his humor, his bluntness, his unaffected obsessions with everything from video games to family.
In the spring of 2014, my father died. Mom decided to rent a boat and scatter Dad’s ashes in the Detroit River. After my mother, my siblings, and our families had boarded the boat, we filled the 30-minute ride with awkward conversation. How’s the job? How about those Tigers?
My sister, Raquel, lost her composure, dashing below to find a bathroom. She almost ran into Tyler at the bottom of the stairs. He recognized her distress and said, “I don’t know what to say to make you feel better, but I can give you a hug.”
That was exactly what she needed. “He hugged me so tight. And kept hugging me,” Raquel told me later. “It meant the world to me.”
At the appointed spot, the boat stopped. Raquel poured Dad’s ashes over the side, while Mom stood alone behind her. My brothers made eye contact with me. What should we do?
Rather than step forward to comfort Mom, I stepped back. It was not my finest hour. But Tyler exceeded my expectations, walking over to hold his grandmother tightly. He whispered to her, “Everyone thinks I’m comforting you, but really I need comforting.”
Finally, I know what perfect is. It’s a child blessed with the grace to show goodness, even on the worst of days. No, Tyler is not my idealized son. He is my ideal one.
Originally appeared in National Journal (November 29, 2013), Copyright © 2013 by National Journal Group, Inc. reprinted with permission by The Atlantic Monthly Group, theatlantic.com, and adapted from Love That Boy by Ron Fournier, Copyright © 2016 by Ron Fournier, Published by Harmony Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.