Autism, Love and the 2020 Election

My autistic son goes through life spreading the love Viktor Frankl speaks of in “Man’s Search for Meaning”

Young man and woman selfie
Diego with his cousin Charlotte. Selfie by Charlotte

“For the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth — that Love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire.” Viktor Frankl

This “truth” comes from psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning. Written in 1946, the book recounts the author’s years in a Nazi concentration camp and delineates his philosophy on man’s elusive search for meaning.

If Frankl could find this truth in the midst of untold suffering, certainly love can replace much of the hatred that has taken up room in our collective hearts this 2020 election season.

I have a great role model when it comes to truth and love. Somehow, my 26-year-old son Diego, who’s autistic and has a pretty low IQ, has for some time known “that Love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire.”

Though the Love Frankl speaks of can only be an aspiration, Diego comes closest to achieving it than anyone I know.

This realization came to me the other day on one of our frequent walks together. Here’s what happened on that walk, along with other examples of Diego’s love.

Love values dignity, not usefulness.

“Today’s society is characterized by achievement orientation, and consequently it adores people who are successful and happy and, in particular, it adores the young. It virtually ignores the value of all those who are otherwise, and in so doing blurs the decisive difference between being valuable in the sense of dignity and being valuable in the sense of usefulness.

Diego certainly values a person’s dignity and gives no mind to their usefulness. He loves his disabled friends who have no paying jobs as much as any family friend making hundreds of thousands in the corporate world.

He’s not blind to physical characteristics like wrinkles, skin color or size, but he doesn’t judge them like most people. He notices them and actually highlights them often as he makes sense of humanity. He says, for instance, that Abuela looks like Helen Mirren, Chadwick Boseman was black like Trevor Noah, and the politician on TV is fat like John Goodman.

Diego’s the only 20-something grandchild who loves to spend time, every day, just sitting around in peace with his grandparents. On his daily calls to Abuela, he often reminds her to bring him his Thursday pancakes. It’s a little dynamic they’ve fallen into, and, on some level, he knows it’s Abuela who gets the most out of the serious significance he gives this expectation.

Diego makes you feel, however briefly, that he sees you, even if he doesn’t know you at all.

Our walk the other day took us down a busy street in town, which gave Diego multiple opportunities to address perfect strangers.

As we walked across a parking lot, he turned to a man in a taxi who was speaking in Spanish with his passenger. Smiling at him, Diego asked, “Soy de Venezuela. ¿De dónde eres tu?” (“I’m from Venezuela. Where are you from?”)

“Soy de Colombia,” the man replied. Diego was visibly excited, as he always is when people tell him where they’re from. No matter where that is, he’ll celebrate it, and celebrate you.

Later on, a leopard print garment on a store window caught my eye and we walked into the store. Diego quickly initiated a conversation about leopards with the lady in charge.

“I watch videos about leopards every day. I love leopards,” he said and proceeded to give her information about the feline. When a Marc Anthony song Diego likes came on they talked about that, with Diego sharing his delight. His innocent way instantly disarmed the lady. As we left, she thanked Diego for stopping by and told him to come back again soon.

Diego had a job for three years rolling up plastic knives and forks into paper napkins at a soup kitchen. He never looked down on any of the soup kitchen clients, just as he doesn’t look up to people with important jobs and expensive houses.

In fact, Diego doesn’t understand the concept of looking “up” or “down” at people. He knows no one’s humanity is above another person’s just as he knows no job is beneath anyone.

Recently, I had to self-quarantine because a close contact at work got COVID. I thought Diego would have a really hard time with it because we do so much together. On the first morning of my quarantine, I called Diego, who was downstairs, on his cell.

He picked up and said “Hi mom. How’s the quarantine going? How are you feeling? I’m handling it well.”

There you have it: pure love.

Loves lets you see what’s essential in others.

“Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him.”

Diego doesn’t value the inessential in you. He’s glad when you’re glad for your successes, luck, fame or recognition, yet none of it defines you in his eyes.

Many people will show you less affection after you go through a divorce, have a serious economic setback or get sick. Diego mentions and treats with love the uncles no longer married to his aunts. If we criticize them or anyone else, he’ll say “Let’s change the subject,” and, if we don’t, he’ll just interrupt incessantly until the subject is changed, even if it’s changed to our reprimanding him for interrupting so much!

He seeks your company just as much if you had to sell the house with the pool and move into a tiny apartment, or if you get sick and all you can do together is sit and hold hands.

Love knows not the boundaries of space and time.

“Love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved. It finds its deepest meaning in his spiritual being, his inner self. Whether or not he is actually present, whether or not he is still alive at all, ceases somehow to be of importance.”

Diego maintains close relationships with his loved ones regardless of how often he gets to see them or how far away they live.

He calls his nonna and Abuela every day. He constantly invites his aunt and nonna, who live in Venezuela, to come live with him in Connecticut. I suspect he knows they can’t or don’t want to live in Connecticut, but says it to convey his love.

Diego sees no reason to cease interacting with those no longer with us either. When we’re out in the open and the skies are above us, chances are Diego will address the departed, not with grief, but with love — as if their absence in this world made no difference to him. He’ll look up, smile, and wave “Hi Nonno! Hi Tia Margot! Hi Tia Irma! Hi Juan! Hi Sean!”

He’ll go as far back as tia Gemma, who died in 2007 when Diego was just 13.

Love IS the answer

“Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.”

You can never know what Diego will come up with when we go on a walk. Once every long while, he may be pretty quiet. Most of the time, however, he likes to call people and initiate interactions with a stranger or two.

On this particular day, his aunt (Rosanna) and dad (Cesar) were on his call list. It turned out Diego had left his cell phone home, so I tried to convince him, to no avail, to call whomever he wanted when we got back.

He so insisted, though, that I let him use my phone. Cesar did not answer, so Diego had me text “Good luck on your showing”. Cesar’s a realtor, and Diego never forgets to wish him good luck every time he has a showing.

If Diego loves you, whatever’s important to you is just as important to him.

Then we called Rosanna and found out she was in her car heading in our direction. Diego asked if she wanted to walk with us, so she took a short detour, parked her car and joined us for about fifteen minutes.

People are apt to take detours and change plans so they can spend a bit of time with Diego and get some love.

As we headed back home, we walked past a Japanese restaurant and Diego said to the waitress it was his favorite restaurant. Diego always thinks of anything he likes or loves as his favorite. In truth, he doesn’t get the concept of favorite. Every one of his cousins is his favorite, as is every aunt, uncle, superhero, country and Disney movie (except Fantasia, which disturbs him).

bike ride
Diego with his mom & Aunts Lole, Rosanna & Sandra. Photo by Fer Neri

In some profound way, Diego understands that love is love is love, and that it comes from an infinite source. He also knows that, at our core, what we all want is love.

For example, recently Diego heard me talk about how my friend Lily was distraught because she’d been treated rudely at work. I was a bit agitated about the unfairness of it all and mentioned I’d give her a call. Diego’s comment: “Make her feel better.”

Then there was the time our friend Pilar was smacked in the face by a perfect (unstable) stranger as she walked out of a coffee shop. As I was telling my husband to give her a call, Diego said to him “Cheer her up.”

I can’t leave out the fact that Diego can be the ultimate noodge and often tries the most zen person’s patience. Sometimes, he needs hourly reassurance that he’ll see his cousin Fer next weekend, say. He’ll wear you down until you agree to a specific date you’ll take him to visit his friend in Cape Cod or his aunt who lives a mile away.

Then there’s the constant chatter and unrestrained exuberance when I’m out on a walk with him and I’d really prefer some quiet time. Or when I want to have a specific conversation with my sister and Diego’s so excited he won’t let me insert a word sideways.

I also need to make clear that Diego’s autism and low IQ don’t make him who he is or give him special wisdom. They are just part of who he is. At times, they’ve produced suffering. They certainly make it so that Diego isn’t able to cross a street safely, have a prolonged back-and-forth conversation, manage five dollars, or use a stove and oven.

Whatever makes Diego Diego, his essence is clear to anyone who loves and knows him: Diego goes through life spreading love. He’s a master at getting people to feel its purity if only for a fragment of time, no matter what worries may be swirling in their minds.

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