Ever since that moment a few weeks ago at the Springfield Falcons game, the one when Ryan reached deep into the astonishing depths of his memory to recall the exact date and situation that he last knew of a hockey goalie giving up four goals on seven shots, we have been talking more than usual about this ability.
These conversations have never been easy — for me — tempered, as they were by bittersweet feelings of pride mixed with a wonder that nagged at me. The “wonder” part boiled down to this. If Ryan displayed some prodigious ability in sports, or more traditional academic pursuits, would I be more at ease with them? But this … this … what exactly? Memory? What do you call the ability to memorize, store and sort thousands of data points and recall them at an instant?
We discovered Ryan had this ability by accident, thanks to a pack of hockey cards. I probed a bit to test how far it went, amazed that the deeper I looked, the more I found he knew. When Riley heard, she immediately wanted to test him. Veronica and I stopped her after a few questions. We felt he was being put on display — even though it was just the four of us — and it made us uncomfortable.
From that day forward we harbored this knowledge — that our son was in possession of an astounding ability to recall hockey statistics — quietly. It came up from time to time. We shared anecdotes with family and friends, but discouraged anyone from testing him on it. I wrote a few blog posts about it.
I was, and am, in awe of those moments when the full power of his mind is on display. But there was a nagging feeling of “yeah, but” that always followed them.
What followed the “yeah, but” of course, were thoughts of aptitudes and abilities that were, for lack of a better word, more normal. And then those thoughts we be followed by thoughts of “why can’t I celebrate this the way I would if he were the best athlete in his class, or the best math student?”
Over this same period was when we first discussed with Ryan his diagnosis. We always framed it in terms of strengths and challenges. We wanted him to understand why certain things were a struggle for him, but we also wanted him to know that he could do things that very few people could, and that was part of autism, too.
The former came as no surprise to Ryan. Veronica located a social skills group for him when he told her, very early in his elementary school days, that he got “nerves” on the playground when it came to interacting with other kids.
The latter was something we wanted him to embrace. To understand that not only was he not damaged goods, but in some ways he was quite extraordinary. As elementary school became middle school, we tried to get him to understand that those incredible skills might someday carry him to a career.
At first, I wasn’t sure how much Ryan processed that idea. But I believe it’s settling in. Another thing has become clear — he’s quite proud of what he can do. For him.
And he wants other people to know about it.
One of Ryan’s teachers, a hockey fan, discovered Ryan’s ability in losing some argument to him about the date or score of some game long past. He likes to quiz Ryan about it. We know this because Ryan tells us. Again, it made us uneasy. Was he being put on display, like a sideshow?
Ryan had no objection. But did he understand what it meant?
For him? Or for us? We’ve faced these questions before.
We have been presented with an interesting opportunity to share Ryan’s story with a wider audience. I approached it gingerly. It had to be Ryan’s choice. I mentioned the idea one morning before school. By evening, he was bugging me to get started. He understands that it’s about showing people what people on the autism spectrum can do with their intense interests. He told his teacher and his social skills group about it at the first opportunity.
I was wary of leading him. I wanted to make sure, as much as I could, that this was something he understood and wanted to do. When I questioned him about how he feels about knowing there are very few people who can recall hockey statistics the way he does, his answers were obvious — he feels proud. He wants to boast, even.
And for the first time, I can truly, honestly, say that I do as well.