The following article was inspired by my earlier post on this topic, and originally appeared in the October 22, 2009 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.
When my 4 year old son, Coulter, says he’ll be right back, it usually means two things: first, he’s decided to act on an impulse that’s been brewing in his head for hours. Second, he’ll be anything but “right back.”
As impractical and futile as this ploy may be, I give him an ‘A+’ for the effort. One of his more amusing uses of it occurred when he was 2 years old. Having set his mind on walking to the Oquirrh Mountains from our house, he donned his yellow SpongeBob sandals and marched toward the front door. “I goin’ for a walk in my mountains,” he announced.
Never mind that even the most direct route would be at least three miles and would have required the toddler to navigate a neighborhood and cross a major highway. But logistics weren’t important. “Gotta get in those mountains,” he affirmed. And that’s all that mattered.
I didn’t turn him around immediately. Instead I let him walk to the end of the driveway and gaze up at the range’s western slopes. “How about we both go?” I asked. It was a compromise he could live with.
Coulter’s affinity for mountains isn’t unique in our family. His two older brothers live to explore canyon trails and claw their way up rock faces. They love the sights, the smells, the spirit of adventure. But Coulter’s connection with the mountains is more intrinsic. Bridger and Weston love the mountains—Coulter needs them.
Last spring, my wife, Meadow, and I were able to understand Coulter’s passion for mountains in greater context. He was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a disorder on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum.
Asperger’s syndrome (AS) is characterized by marked deficiency in social skills and significant difficulty with both verbal and non-verbal communication. Other symptoms include enhanced auditory and visual perception, atypical use of language, and intense specialized interests. All of these can range from mild to severe, depending on the person.
Persons with AS often compare living with the disorder to feeling like a perpetual fish out of water—especially when it comes to social situations, where things like speech inflection and body language are lost in translation. The resulting confusion and anxiety, combined with overstimulation, underpin much of the eccentric behavior. Coulter’s heart races when he gets overwhelmed. Or as he says, his heart “wiggles.”
Asperger’s syndrome distinguishes itself from other autistic disorders in that cognitive development is fairly normal. Children with AS often command a rich vocabulary at very early ages—even if social interactions hinder its use. This explains why Coulter sang the Happy Birthday song to himself, word for word, a week before his first birthday, yet can’t give a straight answer when somebody asks how old he is today.
We knew Coulter was a unique child when, by age 3, he had memorized verbatim the entire scripts of every episode of the first three seasons of SpongeBob SquarePants. SpongeBob was just one of a short list of eclectic “preoccupations,” which also includes anything related to pirates, Star Wars, or musical structure. The other day he asked Meadow, “Why does music live in my head?”
The primary challenge for Meadow and me is helping others to understand Coulter’s disorder. After all, he seems like every other kid—until you interact with him. Then it becomes a mixed bag of confusion, amazement, mild animosity, and sometimes even hilarity.
Woven throughout Coulter’s neurobiological tapestry is his fascination with being in the mountains. It’s amazing how even a short canyon drive can visibly calm his nerves. He doesn’t need to hike or boulder-hop. He just needs to be there.
Coulter’s connection to the mountains makes perfect sense to Salt Lake City based blogger Forrest Gladding, who also has Asperger’s. “He feels he can be himself,” he said. “There is a sense of calm being outdoors.” Forrest, 35, discovered he had the disorder only 5 years ago and is coming to terms with the diagnosis. We became acquainted after I wrote about Coulter’s AS on my blog. His perspective on Coulter has become invaluable.
“The stimulation [of being in the mountains] makes more sense than being in a classroom or in a grocery store,” he said. “Being outside is pretty predictable for our brains. We know what we are in for most of the time.”
Forrest leads an essentially normal life as a husband and father. He considers himself a success story, crediting his mother with building a foundation of love and guidance. The outdoors expanded that foundation and provided a balance for him.
A native of Baltimore, Forrest moved to Utah as a teenager and was instantly hooked on our wilds. He became obsessed with snowboarding and mountain biking, and now considers the activities elemental needs. He’s drawn to them because they are solitary sports—sports that don’t necessitate social interaction. He admits that motor skill deficiency—an almost universal symptom of AS—makes learning snowboarding tricks more difficult. They take longer for him to master than they would for somebody without AS. But master them he does.
“We just don’t give up as easily,” he said.
Coulter showed similar resolve on a recent hike in the Vernon Hills. While his older brothers scampered toward a 6,300 foot summit with a natural grace, Coulter labored along the trail. It was his first unassisted hike, and he was exhausted by the time we reached the top. But couldn’t have been prouder—or more at peace.
Forrest expresses his feelings for the outdoors in the photos he takes and posts on his blog. Coulter conveys his with a simple smile. He hasn’t latched onto any specific facet of mountaineering, but when and if he does I’ll be there to nurture it. For now, he’s content just to be there, finally comfortable in his own skin and free from the clutter of everyday life. No confusion, no anxiety, no heart wiggles.
While Coulter’s preoccupation with mountains may be more clinical than mine, it’s one I’m glad we share.