Tobin has a hard time with eye contact.
Lack of eye contact is one of the markers for autism.
It’s also one of the markers for attachment issues in children who are adopted.
I can remember those first months Tobin was home, how I would always try to get his eyes. I’d play the games: peek-a-boo, bubbles, blanket over the head and then pulled off… always trying to get him to look at me.
Then I began reading about autism. I began taking the online tests and fervently researching. And I became desperate. Longing desperately for my son to look at me for more than a split second.
I remember taking him to the international adoption clinic and talking with the psychologist there. “He won’t look at me,” I said, in tears.
I started to continue and she interrupted, “I want to stop you for just a minute. This may sound like it’s not a big deal… it’s a semantic shift, but it makes a big difference. Instead of ‘He won’t look at me,’ say, ‘He has a hard time with eye contact.’ I know it doesn’t sound like much of a different statement… but it really is and it really does make a difference.”
She was right.
From then on, when that desperate feeling started to fill me up, or when I felt myself getting frustrated or upset, I would say to myself, “He has a hard time with eye contact.” That one shift changed my perspective and helped me see his behavior as something he was struggling with, not something he was intentionally withholding. It helped me explain to others, when we would go out in public and the friendly folks from my town would try and get him to interact. “He has a hard time with eye contact,” I would say, and it helped me not feel bad about his lack of response to the loving people around us. Helped me to understand.
When Tobin started attending his school and receiving behavior therapy, several of his goals dealt with eye contact: following a point, responding to his name, etc. etc.
And Tobin has made great strides with eye contact.
Our Tobin is always looking, always observing, always laser-focused… just not on us, not on the things that seem to matter. And it’s easy to get frustrated or feel helpless and sad when you can see all of the beauty and life and connection that your son is missing out on because he is so focused only on what he wants to focus on.
During these beginning stages of understanding autism and Tobin, a metaphor began to develop.
I began to see his lack of eye contact as much the same way we are with God… how God tries to get our attention, tries to get us to see what is really important, but we are too focused on what we think is important to look up. That, in fact, we all have “a hard time with eye contact.” And if we would stop only looking at the underbellies of cars or honing in on details of a Hot Wheel bumper sticker, we could look up and see all that God is trying to reveal to us.
This metaphor helped ease the pain I was feeling, and helped draw me to a deeper understanding of my relationship with God and our struggle in the pursuit. It was Good.
But then? Tobin started doing this….
This past Christmas, Tobin’s teacher suggested that Tobin might like some tangrams as a gift. (Those small shapes that you can use to make bigger creations.) She said that he had really been enjoying them in class. We followed her advice and got him a set, and Santa followed the same hint and also got him a couple of sets of these colorful shapes and patterns to follow.
And Tobin LOVED them.
He would get the patterns out and focus on matching the shapes with the patterns. He wanted to do it all the time, and we began taking the shapes and patterns with us. But within a couple of weeks, he had ripped up all the paper patterns and misplaced many of the wooden ones. I thought it might be the end of his tangram love and then we began to see these appear.
The first time I watched him do this, I wept.
Tobin is such a mystery. Not knowing what he is thinking or feeling, only getting glimpses of his eyes, these are challenging things for me. I want so badly for Tobin to know how much he is loved. And I want so badly to connect with him and know what he is thinking.
I want to know what he sees when he stares at those cars for so long, when he pulls my hand to have me look under the back of Every. Single. Car. in the parking lot. What is he seeing?
These shapes? These works of art he creates? They’re a window into his mind. These designs he creates with the colorful shapes ALL come from his mind. He’s memorized Every. Single. Detail. from the patterns from his sets at home and from his sets at school. Memorized. And some of them he seems to have created himself, from working and working with the medium.
He’s creating art. And it’s a window into our little boy that we’ve never experienced before.
And I’ve been reflecting on this.
While it’s true that God does want us to focus on what is “important,” maybe my metaphor had the roles upside-down.
Maybe Tobin is the one showing me.
Maybe he’s the one who knows where to focus, what to see. Because maybe it’s in really seeing, really experiencing the simple, the ordinary, the mundane, the overlooked.
Maybe the Good is not just found in looking up and away but in looking close.
Because maybe when we really focus on what’s right in front of us, we can see how the everything works together to make something beautiful.
We can see the possibilities in the pieces.