The Vanishing Boy

by Paul Collins

The moment I opened my eyes I knew something was wrong. The sun wasn't up yet, and a cry was forming in Morgan's throat. I padded over to his bed, puzzled.

"Morgan?"

His darkened room was filled with battered brass instruments, playing cards, thick reference books - the inscrutable fascinations of an autistic 5-year-old. Morgan had always been in his own world, but it was a fairly happy one. In his waking hours he'd hum "In the Hall of the Mountain King" while shuffling through mysterious sequences of pinochle cards; lately he had become engrossed in an illustrated encyclopedia of electric guitars, squinting and smiling at the old pictures and names: Danelectro, Rickenbacker, Gretsch. Sometimes he'd brush past his baby brother and march up to me with a lump of Play-Doh. "Gibson ES-350," he'd demand. As I'd gamely fashion a fretboard and tuners out of clay, he'd grab his tarnished French horn, skip outside to the tree swing and blast out wobbling notes at the neighbors: borp, brap, boorp.

I leaned farther over his bed.

"Morgan?"

Bam.

I staggered back, smacking away another punch, yelling in surprise, "Go to your room!" - which didn't mean much since he was already in it. I retreated across the hall and snapped on the bathroom light. Blood was flowing from my nose. Behind me Morgan thrashed on his bed, pounding and kicking the bedroom wall, screaming.

It hadn't always been like this. But lately Morgan had been reaching out into the world and forming full sentences. I want a peanut butter sandwich. Turn on the TV, please. Yet the more he understood the world outside himself, the more it infuriated him. He was noticing things. The slightest variation in his world — a broken cracker, a minute tear in a book — sent him into inconsolable tantrums over the very existence of disorder.

"Fix it," he'd roar. "Fix it fix it fix it. …" Sometimes I could; sometimes I couldn't. Sometimes it didn't matter: he'd flail at me anyway. Recently the tantrums started in bed, before he was fully awake. Nothing in particular was setting him off: just being conscious enraged him. Just existing. All the calming procedures from his special-ed class were flung aside by his anger and confusion. I studied my bloodied face, and for the first time in my life I was truly frightened.

I found my wife nursing our baby, woken up by his brother's tantrum. "Should we call the doctor?" she said. I felt as if I was losing my son: I feared for the baby, even for myself. "Yes," I said, nodding.

A few days later I held a prescription for liquid Prozac in my hand. It's often used with autistic children to moderate the floods of stimuli that send them into fits. But medicine always has one unavoidable side effect: doubt. I'm a historian and all too aware of how heavily drugs have been marketed to Americans, even in old sheet music and comics. In our house lay a 1935 Dr. Miles New Weather Almanac, alternating farm forecasts with patent remedy testimonials: "I get a bottle of Dr. Miles' Nervine, and after a few doses, it does the trick. Sleep — Oh boy! I'll say I can sleep." We laugh now, of course — and then take our own medicines. Yet what might that daily milliliter of mint-flavored solution do to Morgan? The F.D.A. warnings ranged from a dry mouth to a "black box" caution over suicidal thoughts in a few patients. And his young brain was still forming. But forming into…what, exactly?

We didn't know if treating him would work; we did know what would keep happening if we didn't try. We slipped it into his pudding each day and watched nervously for the ebb of his tantrums. After a week or two the familiar outlines of our son re-emerged from the depths: Morgan began to hum happily again, to sleep through the night, to crash away at our piano joyfully. Today, a year later, he swings on the front-porch glider, blowing glissando raspberries and then smiling at the reflection in his trombone. He still gets frustrated, but it no longer escalates so wildly. And yet. …

Really? You medicate your son? Our choice required no explanation to parents of disabled kids, but to others I almost had to apologize for…well, getting medicine for my child. The failures of the past and present — those old almanacs and new black-box notices — make us suspicious. But I don't have the luxury of distrust. I do not love that it came to this. I do not love drugs. I do not love the companies that sell them.

But I love my son.

This essay was originally published in the October 30, 2006 issue of The New York Times Magazine, and was reprinted with permission of the author.

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is a literary historian and author of Not Even Wrong: Adventures in Autism.

is an artist and author of Different Like Me: My Book of Autism Heroes.

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