If you were to search for signs of autism in children on the NHS website, you’d find a whole host of symptoms that are nothing like anything Sawyer faces. He is more empathetic than many neurotypical adults I’ve met in my life, he can speak eloquently about his feelings, and these days he understands irony to the point of creating his own jokes featuring ironic punchlines. We’ve all heard the word spectrum a million times before when talking about autism, but I’m not sure it’s always clear what the phrase actually means. It isn’t simply a case of whether the autism is mild or severe, it’s a vast range of feelings, behaviours, movements and abilities, each subject to change through time and circumstance.
Sawyer was naturally devastated when he found out that Dave had died, and we were worried that he would not only need to deal with the grief of losing a friend, but that he would suffer from the sudden change to a routine that had been working so well. Sawyer thrives from routine, and although we’ve worked with him over the years to help him cope with timelines and situations sometimes changing unexpectedly, Dave’s death was something nobody could have prepared him for. Sawyer went to the kitchen and retrieved the last few squares of chocolate from the bar Dave had given him the last time they were together. He set the chocolate aside, and smoothed the wrapper out over the worktop, straightening out each wrinkle with tiny hands that shook.
“This was the last thing Dave ever gave to me” Sawyer said, and looked up toward me with quivering lip. “I’ll treasure it forever”.
In true Sawyer style, what he did next was the opposite of what we had expected: He coped with the change in routine flawlessly. I don’t know if some sort of coping mechanism kicked in, allowing him to be affected by only the biggest issue at hand, but despite his upset over losing Dave, he understood that the best thing he could do was remember him fondly. He told us that Dave wouldn’t have wanted us to be sad, and that he would tell us to think about the good times we had shared. There’s something very comforting about the matter-of-factness that often comes with Sawyer’s autism, and so in an unexpected turn of events, he became the lead player in helping us all cope with the loss of our friend. And with the change in our routine.
Lloyd and I sat upstairs at Dave’s funeral, looking down on the packed rows of seating below. We had all been instructed to wear bright clothes – a symbolic nod to Dave’s colourful personality – and it was truly a sight to behold. Another nod to Dave was how we sat devastated yet smiling as we listened to the stories of his life, how much his children loved him, and how he would be missed by his wife, Eileen, who I was hoping to meet that day. I wanted to tell her how much Dave had changed our lives in a short amount of time, and how he spoke so fondly about her during the conversations that we had over the previous few months. After the funeral we told Eileen that we were Sawyer’s parents, and she knew immediately what that meant. We hugged. We shared a few tears, and Lloyd and I drove away in silence, knowing that we were leaving Dave behind for the final time.
A few days later, we received a phone call to say that Eileen, who was also a driver, wanted to take over Sawyer’s school journeys. We were thrilled, and of course so was Sawyer, who told us that Eileen would be ‘continuing Dave’s legacy’. Suddenly the worries of routine and calm-enough journeys dissolved away, and we realised that although we had lost a friend, we were lucky enough to have gained another. 10 months have passed since Dave’s funeral and I am incredibly grateful for Eileen. She not only treats us like family, but her close connection to Dave has helped Sawyer to heal and gain an understanding of how important it is to make happy memories while we’re alive. In Sawyer’s own words, ‘Memories we make when we’re alive mean nobody is ever really gone’.
2020 has been a hellish year for everyone, and it has been difficult to find any positivity at all. But perhaps we can all learn from Sawyer, who chooses to seek out tiny glimmers of hope even in the darkest of times, wherever he can find them.
Even if they come in the form of a smoothed-out chocolate bar wrapper, stored safely in his bedroom, tucked neatly between two books.