Lately I have been spending time within the pages of To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s not my first time to read the Pulitzer Prize winning novel. This might be my fourth or fifth. Between reading the novel for a book club and reading it in preparation to make use of it as a read aloud with A and S early next school year, I am reading for curriculum – for historical setting, thematic elements, symbolism and life lessons- just as much as for narrative enjoyment. From spending time in quiet reflection adjacent to Atticus and the Mobile Register to racing past the Radley place behind Scout with my jeans rolled up, I have been reflecting on the significance of Harper Lee’s story for myself.
Jem. Calpurnia. Mr. Heck Tate. Maudie Atkins. Tom Robinson. Reverend Sykes. Mrs. Dubose. Lively characters with much to say to us even today. While it is widely recognized that Atticus Finch was a good father doing his reticent best in solitary and difficult times, I have also come to a more personal conclusion: Atticus Finch could have successfully raised a child with Asperger’s.
Aunt Alexandra’s vision of my deportment involved playing with small stoves, tea sets, and wearing the Add-a-Pearl necklace she gave me when I was born; furthermore, I should be a ray of sunshine in my father’s lonely life. I suggested that one could be a ray of sunshine in pants just as well, but Aunty said that one had to behave like a sunbeam, that I was born good but had grown progressively worse every year. She hurt my feelings and set my teeth permanently on edge, but when I asked Atticus about it, he said there were already enough sunbeams in the family and to go on about my business, he didn’t mind me much the way I was.
To Kill a Mockingbird, chapter 9, p. 89
The beauty of Atticus’ statement to Scout is in his acceptance of her. No only does this make me smile for its understating qualities but also for Aunt Alexandra’s usage of the word “sunbeam.” Atticus’ connotation of the word seems substantively different. Not only did Atticus “not mind” her differences, but he did the hard work as a parent to help her stand out against her society insomuch as she was standing on her own two feet. He didn’t mind her wearing overalls. He didn’t mind her being addressed as Scout, instead of her given name Jean Louise. He didn’t mind her running around half wild with an awkward neighbor boy and no girls for friends. He didn’t mind her swearing, not really, because he understood it was for attention and want of expression (and incidentally a last-ditch ploy to avoid school). These were unequivocal traits which made Scout stand out as an oddity in polite, accepted Maycomb society.
How is all this important to me? Because he wears the baseball cap 24/7. Giggles uncontrollably at things no one else finds even slightly amusing. Uses archaic phrases. Recites stories from memory that at times have little to do with the flow of conversation. Interjects tidbits of trivia on baseball, presidents, car models, world countries, etc. apropos to goodness knows what. Why should I find this difficult or offensive? Like Atticus I am learning to accept. Whereas he fought the battle of Aunt Alexandra and Maycomb County, I fight my own internal battle. Hard pressed between how I feel others may perceive him and how I should just let him be. My own quirky sunbeam.
“First of all,” he said, “if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – “
“-until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
chapter 3, p. 36
Atticus teaches Scout and Jem to take stock of another’s perspective multiple times in the novel. He offers this advice concerning those he genuinely cares for like Miss Caroline or Mr. Cunningham, and for those he does not, such as Bob Ewell. We need more empathy, more walking around in each other’s skin, more children who can say, “I don’t agree with you, but I understand why you think that way.” More people who are strong enough to wield grace and patience. Not condoning immoral behavior but a loving spirit and empathy for someone else’s struggle.
Atticus had said it was the polite thing to talk to people about what they were interested in, not about what you were interested in.
chapter 15, p. 164
Empathy and theory of mind can be difficult for people on the spectrum. Difficult, but not impossible.
Atticus pushed my head under his chin. “It’s not time to worry yet,” he said. “I never thought Jem’d be the one to lose his head over this – thought I’d have more trouble with you.”
chapter 11, p. 113
As a member of our bookclub noted, Atticus never blatantly tells the children when it is time to worry. He teaches by example through a forbearance that supersedes worry and despair. Through these words he gives credence to the seriousness of the situation, but allows them to know that someone is sharing their concern. He is listening.
Isn’t this what we all desire, for someone to say, “Yes, I hear you are scared. Yes, those are legitimate worries. Let’s deal with this together.”? Unfortunately, fear and anxiety can be the primary emotion for people on the spectrum. Atticus might have been able to successfully parent his way through these daily struggles with an Aspie son or daughter.
Certainly I am not proposing that Jem or Scout were intended to have Asperger’s. They were precocious, yet neuro-typical. Nor am I proposing that acceptance, empathy and anxiety are things exclusively children with Asperger’s need to learn, but as I have often heard expressed: People with Asperger’s struggle with the same issues everyone else does, only more so.
Summer, and he watched his children’s heart break. Autumn again, and Boo’s children needed him.
Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them. Just standing on the Radley porch was enough.
chapter 31, p. 294