This story is one of the finalists of Young Post’s 2016 Winter Short Story competition, which offers the grand prize of an iPad Air 2! Each week during the winter holidays, we will publish one of the finalists’ stories, showcasing the author’s writing skills and creativity, with the winning entry being published in Young Post on April 22
(As Jackson cannot speak out loud, the words in italics represent his thoughts.)
People don’t understand me. They never have. I try so hard to understand them, to learn their language. When I don’t understand, they frown at me and turn their backs on me. Some of them don’t even notice people like me and shove me away. They’re completely apathetic towards people like me. To clear things up, I have Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD). More specifically, I have Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD-NOS). This is one of the things I fully understand. I know this because my mother has been continually repeating the phrase “I’m sorry, my son is autistic. He has PDD-NOS, this limits his ability to properly communicate with people. I apologise for all the trouble he’s caused.” I don’t mean to cause trouble, I wish I could talk normally, everything would be so much easier that way. I just ... need help to ...
Something stirs me awake. I open my eyes slowly and study the face that hovers a few centimetres away from mine. Mum. I recognise you.
“Son, it’s time to wake up. Time to get ready for school,” she says as she shakes me gently and strokes my hair. I gaze at her blankly. She smiles at me, and yet I can see the sadness in her eyes.
I understand sadness.
“Oh my dear son,” she strokes my head one last time and kisses my forehead, “if only you weren’t autistic ... ”
She leaves my room.
I lift myself out of bed and groggily walk into the bathroom. I stand in front of the mirror. My eyes look at the familiar face in front of me. That is me. I recognise me. A pale, sad little boy wearing Bob the Builder pyjamas stares back at me. I cock my head to the side. He does the same. We’re going to survive today, just like we always do. I nod and so does he.
I continue with my normal morning routine. I brush my teeth, wash my face, slip on my school uniform, and comb my hair. I finish cleaning up and I head downstairs for my breakfast. As I trudge down the stairs, I hear the sizzling of fresh eggs in the frying pan and the constant barking of my dog, Yeet.
I pull out a chair and sit down. Yeet bounds happily towards me. He jumps on his hind legs and places his front paws on my lap. Hello Yeet, how are you? Affection and fun gleam in his round shiny orbs. That’s funny. I laugh and giggle. I turn my attention away from him for a minute and focus on the plate of freshly fried eggs that my mum places in front of me. She walks away and faces the sink as she starts washing the frying pan. A lovely scent wafts up my nose but I distract myself again with an interesting cube I see lying a few centimetres away. What is this? It looks colourful – individual blocks in six different colours. I grab it. It spins. I turn the different coloured rows and the colours spin as well. This is fun. I ignore the food and immerse myself in this magical cube. How fascinating! What is the purpose of this cube? I wonder.
My mother spins around from the sink and glances at me.
“Jackson, eat your food! It’s going to get cold,” she frowns slightly. She sees the cube in my hand, “Oh, you’ve found the Rubik’s cube I planned on giving you.”
She dries her hands on a paper towel she pulls out from beneath the table and plops down. “Jackson,” she takes the block from my hand and gestures to the eggs, “Eat.”
Okay, fine. I take the spork that has been conveniently placed next to my plate and scoop up a spoonful of egg. I finish the dish quickly and resume playing with my cube.
I can’t talk, even though I have a high-functioning mind. I can understand people, but my responses are only in my head. It seems so unfair.
“Oh no! It’s already 7.30am! We need to leave now or we’ll never be on time for school!”
She grabs her car keys and her bag and leads me out the door. She ushers me into the car and places my school bag on my lap. She closes the door and hops into the driver’s seat. The car engine fires up, and soon enough, the car takes off.
The colours of my neighbourhood fly past me as I glance out of the window. The branches on the evergreen trees wave at me while the wind picks up. I am always distracted by the sights we pass, even though we drive past them every day. But today, I soon lose interest in the outside world and peer down at the “toy” I still have in my hand.
How does this work?
After about 15 minutes, the car pulls into the school car park and stops. Out of the corner of my eye I see my mum turn around and face me with an encouraging smile.
“Today’s another day of school, son! You’re going to be happy, grateful and hold your head up high because you are a bright, young boy!”
I don’t make eye contact with her and continue to fiddle with my cube. She sighs.
I look at her before glancing out of the window. She reaches out and holds my head firmly between her hands.
“My son, I promise you that one day you will no longer be ... like this,” she takes a shaky breath. “I will be there for you every day. I’ll never give up on my hopes, for, one day, I know you’ll be able to communicate like everyone else.”
I try to talk to you, Mum. You just can’t hear me.
I think I see a tear threatening to roll down her cheek.
She stifles a cough and forces a smile.
“Well, we have no time to lose! Let’s go!” She jumps out of the car and opens the door for me. I take my time to get out, because I do not like this place. Not one bit.
“Come on, Jackson!”
I grunt in response.
Once I’m out of the car she takes my hand and leads me to the school gate. Almost instantly, I feel the sneaking glances burn into the back of my head. I can tell my mother senses their gazes, too, as she tenses up and begins to speed-walk towards the gate. I’m aware of their incoherent whispers, and some not-so-quiet phrases. “Weirdo”, “stupid” and “alien” are just some of the thousand names I hear. I look up at my mother. I can tell that she was trying really hard to block out all the words being thrown at me, but I can still see the hurt that flashes in her eyes.
We arrive at the entrance of the school gate.
“Jackson, I believe you know your way now. I’ll be going to the supermarket to buy the ingredients for your favourite ravioli dish, okay?” She leans down and kisses my forehead, “I’ll see you after school, Jackson.” She walks away.
I stand outside of my school gate. I remember this horrid place. If only my mother didn’t care so much about her social status. I can see it in her eyes that she doesn’t want to send me to a normal school, but she doesn’t want to be looked down on by her friends for sending me anywhere else.
I take a deep breath and step into my school. As usual, almost instantly, everyone turns their head and whispers frantically. Why does this have to happen to me? I duck my head down and walk to my locker.
“Oh look, it’s Mr Mute again.”
Everyone bursts out laughing. The remarks spread like wildfire. Once someone makes a comment, the rest will follow suit.
“Hey, did you tell yourself how stupid you look? Oh wait, you can’t!”
The laughter doesn’t die down.
I finally spot my locker and I rush forward.
I daren’t tell my mother about the issues I have every day after she drops me off.
Not that I could, anyway.
I don’t want her to worry
I do my best to ignore them and place my cube in the locker. Hopefully this will be safe in here. I can’t carry anything valuable with me, it would just be taken from me and broken by those heartless people.
“You play with a Rubik’s cube? Oh my god, you’re such a retard.”
More hysterical laughter.
I slam my locker shut and walk into my first class, IT.
The first lesson of the day is always the hardest; I have to get used to the teasing all over again. Every classroom seems filled with distractions. Doctors say I struggle with what they call sensory overload. I might have been able to use computers to communicate, but there was always too much going on. I could never focus.
“Oh, it’s you again, you should go back to whatever planet you came from, no one wants you here,” a blonde girl spits coldly at me.
Thankfully, the teacher is in the room and he scolds her for “not respecting the feelings of others”. She rolls her eyes and glares at me.
I hurry to my seat and turn on the computer. I am tapping, tapping, tapping. I can’t help it.
My classmates get annoyed but they don’t understand that the minute I stop, my mind is flooded with noises, echoes, distractions.
The teacher starts the lesson but I don’t pay attention to him. I have my own personal assignment to complete.
He babbles on about the project the class is required to work on.
“Alright guys, if you need any help, just come to me.”
Something clicks in my head.
Help ... I can used that word to get the attention of the people around me. People will listen to me!
I didn’t know what to do, I just had this sudden motivation, this sudden urge, to voice out how I felt about everything that has been going on.
I open a blank Word document. I rack my brains for the letters used in that word.
I’m not even sure this will work, but I have to give it a shot.
The blank white screen doesn’t help. Remember Jackson!
I type the letter H.
The noises in the classroom are so distracting. I hit my head with my hands and pull my hair.
Focus. But the layout of this keyboard is so confusing. I can’t find any of the letters I need!
I scream and hit the keyboard. I get nasty glances and sniggers from my classmates.
Not anything out of the ordinary.
The teacher comes running to me a few seconds later, “Jackson! What’s wrong?” He looks at the monitor, “What’s this?”
I concentrate on the word.
I finally find the E.
“Oh my god,” the teacher brushes his hair away from his face. “You’re typing,” he gasps, “You’re communicating.” He pulls out a chair and sits beside me.
I type an L.
“H ... E ... L ... ” The teacher’s voice trails off.
Where is the next letter?! This is so frustrating.
I shake my head vigorously and hit my head with my hands again. I feel a cold palm lightly press the nape of my neck. “It’s okay Jackson. Please, take your time.” The teacher gives me a comforting smile.
A smile ... That means he is happy.
I finally find what I’m looking for – the letter P.
Suddenly, the teacher exclaims loudly, “Help! Jackson, you did it! You typed a word! You communicated!” He smiles ecstatically.
“I need to call your mother! I’ll be right back.”
I did it. It worked. He heard me.