Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Sundance Kid is autistic (and no, I’m not qualified to diagnose, but I do know a thing or two about autism)

Two nights ago, while my seven-year-old daughter struggled with a pencil and paper to work out the answers to her math homework, my six-year-old boy listened to the problems and called out the answers.

It’s kind of neat (or annoying, if you happen to be a seven-year-old) that he can figure out the answers to second grade math problems in his head. What’s more remarkable (and even more annoying) is his technique. He runs at a high backed chair, throws himself at it headfirst, and calls out the answer to the problem as he lands in kind of a headstand. 

Dashiell reminds me of Robert Redford

You ever see Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid? it’s one of the greatest movies ever written (by William Goldman, who also wrote The Princess Bride, by the way). 

See it again. And take a close look at Sundance. The character. 

He’s introduced at a card game where he keeps winning. Dashiell’s like that. He figures out the way things work and then uses that knowledge to make them work better. At six, he can already beat me at checkers sometimes and no, that’s not saying a lot, but bear with me here because I’m going to make a point and it’s going to be a good one.

The man Sundance is playing against is convinced he’s cheating and it looks as if there’s going to be a shootout. Sundance doesn’t like to be called a cheater. The movie leaves it pretty ambiguous as to whether he actually cheats, but I’m convinced he doesn't because Dashiell wouldn’t. He knows the rules and he abides by them. He hates losing, but he hates cheating even more.

Look at this picture upside down and the resemblance is uncanny.
Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) walks in and offers the man a way out. All he has to do is invite Sundance to stick around. He doesn’t have to mean it and Butch even promises that they won’t. He just has to make the gesture. My son is the same way, except for the shooting someone part. He has a powerful sense of right and wrong. Calling someone a cheater when he’s not is wrong but everything can be made okay if you simply acknowledge that you messed up.

As the Sundance Kid walks out, the card player calls after him. "Hey, Kid." But Sundance doesn’t respond. That’s my kid in spades. His mind is busy –– so busy that it’s sometimes impossible to get his attention. 

But the things that seals it? When Sundance needs to prove he can shoot in order to get a job as a payroll guard in Bolivia. Percy Garris, the mine owner, tosses a piece of clay or wood or something into the street and tells him to shoot it. Maybe it’s a plug of tobacco.

Sundance misses. 

“Can I move?” Sundance asks. When he moves, he can’t miss. Put my kid in a chair and make him sit still and he can’t even begin to do the math he’s supposed to be learning in first grade. But let him loose…

I don’t know if William Goldman intended it, but I’m going to say he’s written The Sundance Kid to be autistic. I know what you’re thinking. Redford makes eye contact. He holds a conversation. He’s funny. Even charming. He’s also principled, dedicated, and extraordinarily physical.

The sign needed straightening.
All these things are like my son. My son who can climb anything, has a hard time responding when people try to get his attention, believes intensely in fairness, and can solve second-grade math problems in his head, but only when he’s running full tilt at a chair. 

Autism isn't limited to the stuff we used to think it was. I know this because Dashiell was diagnosed as autistic about six months ago. 

I always knew my boy was a little quirky. Now we have a word for what makes him different, a word that doesn’t change him at all, but hopefully can get us some understanding and extra support at school where they seem to think sitting in a chair is the only way to solve a problem.

If not, maybe my son will grow up to be a notorious outlaw.


  1. Autism isn't limited to the stuff we used to think it was.

    I love this. I hope that by the time your adorable six-year old is an adult (like my son, who is quite social, who not only makes eye contact but studies a speaker's eyes and body language during conversations in order to analyze their emotions and motivations, who is highly articulate--reading the dictionary has that effect on one's vocabulary, who is clearly intelligent, and who is a natural teacher able to break down whatever he's teaching into terms the audience can grasp and relate to, but who can't figure out how--or why--to keep track of and manage many of life's important details, who refuses to play the illogical games that seem to be required by most employers just to get through their application process--like don't say anything negative about your last job when if there wasn't something negative about it you'd still be working at that job, and who wouldn't cheat even if he was paid to--which is why he couldn't bring himself to return to one job where the manager's instructions broke the rules he'd been given during training) the world will know that being able to make eye contact and carry on a conversation doesn't mean that a person won't need some understanding and extra support in life.