My son shouted me a gold-pass ticket to see Top Gun – Maverick. No wonder it is breaking box office records – there is something about fighter pilots. It reminded me that somewhere in my files of patient records is a fighter pilot story. When I came home from the US I found it, made some minor changes and here it is:
(Name removed) is an 11 year old high-functioning Asperger’s boy; extremely bright; excelling at everything he does – swimming, surf-lifesaving, school work, with a flawless memory for detail. But, impossible to get along with. School demanded parents get ‘him seen to’; parents had him ‘seen to’ by all sorts of diagnostic professionals. In the mother’s words, they were all long on symptoms but short on solutions. So, out of some desperation she contacted me.
The first session did not go well. He didn’t want to go through the ‘being seen’ process all over again, gave me a summary of all the other people who had tried to work with him and what they had told him. His mother, becoming increasingly embarrassed, tried to moderate the scathing assessments of the professionals he had visited. The contempt for anything his mother said was undisguised, and you could imagine how she felt about being shown up in front of me. I felt for her, and after listening patiently, and with more recklessness than professionalism, I told him that no child in my presence speaks to his mother like that. I gave him a few helpful suggestions of a general nature and left it at that. I certainly did not expect any more contact.
His mother rang, and to my surprise said the boy wanted to come back and talk with me again. I agreed, but only on the condition that he be on his own. I started him working on a mind map – some way of organizing his thinking. On a follow-up visit he brought his completed mind map. As I expected it was a brilliant piece of work – this lad was aiming to make his mark on the world as a fighter pilot. Talk therapy I realized, would only work if it was in a context of activity. So I outlined the next project: making a clay original, applying latex rubber to make a mould, then casting a product in the mould before applying special metallic finishes. He chose to make a boar’s head with big tusks, he had in mind a small version of what one would see from the wall of a hunting lodge in Europe. Like I said, he was high-functioning. Very. While working away together I told him this story:
At the International Airshow recently, an American F14 Tomcat put on an impressive aerobatic display, and as the fighter landed, hundreds of people crowded around the area where it parked waiting to see the pilot. As the shimmering grey beast settled down, a ladder was placed alongside the cockpit, the canopy lifted, and out climbed the pilot. He carried his helmet and oxygen mask, paused on the top of the ladder and acknowledged the applause from the crowd. A minibus was parked nearby, and the rest of his ground crew were waiting for him. He walked toward them, and then an amazing thing happened.
He noticed a teenage girl in a wheelchair, and without hesitation turned and walked toward her, crouched down in front of her, talked at her level, signed his name on her program then tapped her gently on the knee before walking away. The crowd cheered.
“Do you know why they cheered?” I asked the boy. He didn’t, more concerned about getting the tusks to stay in place on the boar’s snout. I continued.
“The crowd had just seen one of the world’s best fighter pilots on display – no question this pilot knew his stuff and had just proved it. But when he chose to acknowledge someone who likely would never walk, let along fly a plane, he became more than a great fighter pilot, he became a great person. He showed that in the moment of his glory, he could be aware of others, to bring a memorable moment to someone who would appreciate it – that’s why the crowd cheered. You could well become the best fighter pilot in the business, but if other people don’t like you, all your skill doesn’t count for much. But, when you can be the best, and still show that you care about others, that’s what really matters”.
When the boy’s mother returned, she looked at the boar’s head and tried unsuccessfully to convey the impression that this was the thing people ‘seeing’ her son usually did. She phoned several days later expressing gratitude that her son was acting so much better toward his siblings, and wanted to know what I had done to bring about what she believed was the beginning of better things. My response was to for her to ask her son what we had done together, and if details were not forthcoming, prompt his memory with some reference to a fighter pilot.
She never did to get to understand what had happened, but wanted to discuss further appointments. I proposed a series of workshop sessions using ‘stealth learning’ – the boar’s head and more design projects being the context for other dimensions of learning based on a new understanding of the ‘context blindness’ of the Autism/Asperger’s disorder. It was some time before I had a reply. The parents had heard about another specialist in this disorder, and they had a referral to see him.
As I put the boar’s head back in the clay-bin, I wondered if the specialist would use such things, or more to the point, a fighter pilot.