Temple Grandin Eustacia Cutler Autism Fund

The Temple Grandin
and Eustacia Cutler Autism Fund

Conversations with Eustacia Cutler

Men, Honor and Shame by Eustacia Cutler

Men take autism harder than women do. It strikes at the heart of their sense of honor. Women are not in the business of honor. We’re built to incubate life and make it grow. Our bodies swell with pregnancy then return to their old shape, our breasts fill with milk and then empty. We accept, we’re flexible.

Men’s bodies are muscular and hard to the touch, they’re built to hold fast to their honorable intent. But what exactly is that intent?

Joyce Carol Oates, reviewing the literary work of James Salter, quotes Salter’s description of Army Air Corps flight missions during the Korean War—a time and place, Salter writes, where “free of the gravitational forces of reality men feel the irresistible lure of the heroic.” Among the posted Air Corps maps and charts, Salter gives the highest rating to the claims board: “On it was listed the name of every pilot in the group who had ever had a confirmed claim in Korea…small red starts marked them…some belonged to dead men….There was his own name with one….It was near the end for him, and, as if in its final throes, the terrible fever to win that had held him was stronger than it had ever been.”

As I read Salter’s words, I recalled a man’s haunting tale of flying over the Pacific on a WWII bombing mission—how, as he talked, he’d cherished and relived each detail: the plane’s ascent, the perfection of the dawn, most of all, his own pristine joy. “I wish I’d died then.”

I remember my shock at his wish. It was fifteen years since WWII. Had the man found no meaning, no rewarding rush in any of the postwar years we’d all of us spent raising our children and living out our family lives?

I returned to Oates’ review and Salter’s words about the claims board: “It was a roll of honor….It was absurd, and yet impressive. Anything that men would willingly die for had to be considered seriously. From this board, perhaps, or one like it, could come names a nation would seize in its appetite for heroes….”

Perhaps the kind of honor Salter describes is impossible for a peacetime dad living out the unprepossessing days of job and home, particularly the father of a boy on the autism spectrum. Not just any boy, his boy. For that man there may be only the embarrassing intrusion of a child who doesn’t “get it” —at best, the uncomforting recognition of his son’s struggle to master what it is he thinks his father wants from him.

And even if that dad walks away, as many do, yelling that he wants his life back, in his heart he knows he’ll never be free to reach for Salter’s glory. Instead, each time he looks at his boy shame will creep over him, and with it an additional shame that he should feel that way.

After reading the above passage at an autism conference, a Latino man comes up to me.

“It’s true what you said about honor. Still I can’t get the notion of it out of my head.” Struggling visibly, he watches his autistic boy, who’s had an epileptic seizure during the conference. The man wants so much to be a good dad, but the moment presses hard on his Latin pride.

Another father comes up to me at another conference , he’s furious at me for using “all those cuss words.” (Later I learn that cuss words aren’t the problem; he can’t bear his son’s inability to understand that he should defecate in the toilet and not in some inappropriate corner.) Overwhelmed with rage and shame—feelings as unacceptable in this man’s world of straight plowed furrows and upright living as are my cuss words—he’s trying to tamp them down with righteous wrath.

Angry at his unfair lambasting, I turn it back on him: “You weren’t listening to what I said. If you’d listened instead of getting mad, you’d have understood the point to what I was saying.” Since I’m better at words than he is, he withdraws, mute, sullen, and unconvinced. If kids can do what they want, ladies talk any old way, how will there be any boundaries left? Any God given answers?

We eye each other across the room and after a bit the man comes back, his face now raw with the ignominy of doubt and near tears. Forget the argument, forget justification, just apologize to the lady, make some kind of peace.

And in a clumsy sort of way we do.

Still, it’s only a moment. Later, when I try to catch him at the door to say goodbye and wish him well, he’s had time to put his proper mindset back in place. He wants me to meet his wife. She’ll take care of this.