What A Tree Revealed About Autism
A story about growth in a boy and a tree
Love arrives at such unexpected moments
My story revolves around the Fourth of July in 2019 when my family and I left the crowded suburbs of Philadelphia and drove to spend the weekend at my brother and sister-in-law’s home in the country. My son Quinton, who is on the autism spectrum, was about to turn nine and was looking forward to returning to this beautiful sprawling property where he could go exploring to his heart’s content. The property is the ideal setting for children as there are no cars or other hazards to be vigilant about, so exploration by the exploer can be hyper-focused.
Generally Quinton is not one who shares anything easily, even when prompted. In the days leading up to the Fourth, when not at camp or school, he would typically be found isolated in the house somewhere underneath a blanket watching his iPad learning about snakes, spiders, and other critters that might make the faint of heart squirm. Other times he may spend hours memorizing statistics from his “NBA Live” or “Stack the States” games. Quinton has come a very long way from the four-year-old who did nothing but babble. So, we tend to pick our battles and let him have his downtime when he needs it. We refer to these as much needed “brain breaks.”
After a long drive, we arrived at the country house and immediately set out walking around the property looking for snakes, toads, spiders, and whatever other exciting creatures we could find. Along the way, Quinton asked me about the Sycamore tree that stood solitarily in the yard behind the house. I was really surprised because I didn’t think he remembered us planting it.
When my Dad died in 2013, my son was only three years old. He loved his grandfather very much and was especially gentle with him as my Dad was extremely frail from Parkinson’s Disease. They forged a bond immediately and shared an endearing mutual love.
To commemorate my father’s life, we planted a Sycamore tree in the backyard and scattered my Dad’s ashes with the soil to help nourish the baby sapling. Our whole family went up for the tree planting ceremony on Father’s Day in June of 2013. It was our first without my dad. When the tree was planted, it was about two feet tall. It was just a skinny long stick with a few leaves and did not appear to be nearly robust enough to survive the long, brutally cold winter months in Berks County, Pennsylvania.
The tree not only held its own, but it flourished. When we returned on the fourth, the tree was almost twenty feet high. For almost ten minutes, Quinton was laser-focused on the tree and kept insisting “grand-daddy is still alive in the tree, and he is so strong.” I tried my best to explain the abstract notion of death and what happens when we leave the earth, but he was adamant about my dad’s presence in the tree. His attention then shifted and we both dropped the subject and I thought he had moved on from ruminating about the tree.
The family had chosen the Sycamore tree because it was one of my Dad’s favorites. “Sycamore trees also symbolize strength, protection, eternity, and divinity” (TreeNerdy.com).
When it finally grew dark enough on that Fourth of July, it was finally time to set off some fireworks on the back deck that also had the best view of the tree. With the sky illuminated above the Sycamore and the thunderous boom of the fireworks rumbling through the valley, Quinton stood up and told everyone what he had tried sharing with me earlier in the day.
“Grand-daddy is alive and communicating with us through the tree. Grand-daddy is feeding the roots of the tree. He is very strong and that’s why it’s so large.” He finished by telling us that “grand-daddy will always be with us because even though we cannot see him, he is alive in the tree.”
All of us were astounded. What an amazing thing for anyone to express so genuinely, so innocently and with love. But especially true because the mind of a young autistic child generally expresses things as being very concrete and literal. Even the simplest abstract ideas and notions are extremely difficult for their brains to grasp. The fact that my son came to his conclusion about the tree independently, was as much surprising and endearing as it was expected because that is how the autistic brain operates.
People with autism are members of an extraordinary population. They inspire, frustrate, amaze, and baffle all who are lucky enough to know them. As a parent, you wish for a road map that would help you navigate the complexities of raising a child. But no such roadmap exists, especially for people with autism. When we lose the ones we love, it is one of life’s biggest mysteries where they go next. We are left with so many questions that play continuously on a loop in our heads. Is what people refer to as the “soul” still alive? Are they watching us from “heaven?” Just because they are gone physically, does that mean they are gone in every way? Will we ever see them again?
When my son spoke to us on that warm summer evening on the Fourth of July, it seemed as if a little bit of that mystery was revealed. I felt as if my son had connected with my Dad on a mysterious level beyond what I could imagine.
It must be said that my Dad was a force to be reckoned with right up until his last breath. He was strong-willed, stubborn, and had a zest for life unlike any other I have ever met. If anyone could make such a fragile sapling grow so quickly and furtively, it would be my Dad. And if anyone could connect with my son from afar, it would also be my Dad. I do believe my son was feeling the strength and protection my Dad still provides to all of us, just as his favorite tree does for whomever is seeking shelter from the storm.
Many have surmised that those on the Autism Spectrum are on a higher plane of existence and possess special talents that the general population does not. For example, my son has always been able to pick up bees, hornets, and wasps without being stung. We have called him the bug whisperer since he was four years old. This summer when he was at camp, he told one of the counselors that he is “part bee” and that’s why he and the bees love each-other. That was after the counselor asked him how he holds them and pets them without getting stung. It stands to reason that because all his senses are heightened, he can communicate in different ways, hear things we can’t and see things we don’t notice as we have neuro-typical brains.
Another example is when he told my Mom when one of her oldest dearest friends died a few months ago, “She is going back to her past.” He had not spent more than one evening with this person before she died, but that was his unprompted conclusion about where she went. We were unaware he even realized she had passed. It was also a suprise to hear that he was able to articulate the idea of someone’s past life. To our knowledge no one has ever discussed that notion with him and it is a very sophisticated concept for one so young to appreciate.
One thing is for certain, life teaches us lessons every day and sometimes at the least expected moments. On that July Fourth, I got a glimpse of a part of my son I thought I would never see and was unaware he possessed. I try not to think about what the future has in store for my son because it’s impossible to predict and can create too much anxiety. That day was such a gift for me, my husband and my daughter. We got to see this amazing part of Quinton for the first time and the power of the moment is deeply ingrained in me. How wonderful for him and for all of us that we got to be with my Dad on the July Fourth holiday after all.