“Is THIS what I think it is?” Erik’s eyes twinkle. His dimples emerge, playful.
“That depends,” I smile, slightly teasing, “…what you think it is…”
“I think you know what I think,” he whispers, dimples escalating. A huge smile is brewing, threatening to erupt. He bites it back. This is better than Christmas.
“And I think YOU know what it is,” I reply.
It is like we have uncovered buried treasure, and in fact we have. We have discovered the former Erik, and there it lie, silky and green and vulnerable on his bed. We both gaze at it, savouring it, marvelling and remembering.
“It’s Jungle Boy,” he says, softly.
“It is. It’s your former skin, Erik.”
“Yes,” he says, reverently, leaning in now and stroking the glossy fabric. “It’s the me that used to be me.” He pauses. “And it’s so small. Was I that small?”
And it’s true, the costume, a shimmery Peter Pan-like emerald green, jagged, lustrous and limp, is petite. The entire thing could be bunched up now in Erik’s 18-year-old fist. At 6’1″, Erik would be hard pressed to pull the pant portion up over one leg. The waistline is impossibly impish, vulnerable, sweet. “Was I ever this small?” he marvels, again. Of course. Time passes.
But what he is really thinking is, “What did I see in this little suit, really? Why was it so important to me? And why, years later, am I so excited to see it? Why do I have such strong feelings for this tiny outfit?”
I can tell you why, Erik. Because it was your lifeline. It was the way you defined yourself for a chunk of your childhood. It was who you became after school each day in order to cope with the who you had to be at school. It was your self-regulation. Your life ring. It was you.
“Where was it… all these years?” he stammers, still beaming, still digesting the face-to-face encounter with the Erik that was.
“In the basement… with the other dress-up clothes. I was down there a minute ago, searching through the storage bins for the caveman costume for Heather’s Youtube skit. And there it was – Jungle Boy – quietly curled up in one corner of a Tupperware container. I was so excited when I found it, Erik… like running into an old friend, but better. This is like time travel, like being handed Little Erik. Like rewinding the clock, stepping back.”
Our after-school routine was pretty predictable back then. We would come home from our school pick-ups, tumble out of the van, artwork, lunch kits and backpacks, and disperse once inside the house. Scott and Heather would typically regale me with stories, snippets from their school day and pull papers out of their backpacks – forms to be signed and such – and plunk it all down on the desk. Erik would be no-where in sight. Yet.
But wait. What’s that? Something pointy and green would inevitably and repeatedly pop into my field of vision. From an upstairs window, I would spy a familiar sight: Erik’s green felt hat, happily topping his head as he and his beloved Jungle Boy costume soared to new heights on our backyard trampoline. Bounce, bounce, bounce. Jungle Boy was doing his thing. Erik was free.
He did this most days, the bouncing. But the costume was a staple. Every day after school he would slip it on, cool and silky soft, like slipping into a more comfortable skin, a more familiar version of self. And then he was happy. The transformation was quite astonishing – from pinched, quiet and anxious – to joyous. That is the best way to describe it. Pure joy.
I have read that children with autism often adopt a character, live through it, speak through it, and become it. Sometimes it is a beloved Disney character, sometimes it is an object or person which represents a special interest (Erik had been a whale in younger years), and sometimes it is something fabricated, made up, an invention of a mind that exists without boundaries. In Erik’s case, it was sort of a natural extension of his bedroom decor.
Back then, Erik’s bedroom was a jungle oasis. We had tacked up leafy, viny wallpaper to create a feature wall. He had a raised bed adorned with monkeys and leopards, topped by an IKEA leaf canopy. The floors held striped carpets; a zebra skin was nailed to a wall like an African trophy. In actual fact, I had it all wrong, mixing India and Africa, jungle with savannah, but the effect was what mattered: it was tranquil, exotic, removed. It was an escape. We had music, too, a jungly rhythm, special lights, and the raised bed offered an opportunity to hunt and fish, a place to sit and observe the wilderness. The space below, filled with pillows and depending upon the season, a small tent, offered a sensory hideout, a sanctuary.
But it was the costume that really did the trick and rendered the transformation complete. The little green suit, Jungle Boy, was an instant sensation. In it, Erik became the keeper of the jungle. He was on safari in his own bedroom. It allowed him to get away from it all – to push back the confusing, bustling school day that was and become something more tranquil. No strings, no boundaries.
I have read, too, that kids with autism do this to escape, yes, but also because they often know this fictitious character better than they know themselves. Kids with autism often find it hard to articulate their emotions, to know exactly how they are feeling, to untangle it all… and then to figure out what to do about it. Add to that the strain of trying to figure out the motivations of others and the emotions they feel. It is overwhelming.
Defaulting to a comfortable, well defined character – to a fascination – is a way of making sense of the world. It is self-regulation. When you think about it, it is something we all do. We watch movies; we escape in novels, and we learn new ways of moving forward. We are also given permission to avoid who we are and what we need to do. We live, for a time, through others. So it is nothing new.
But in autism, it is way out there. It is not a book read under the sheets late at night. It is a costume worn for all to see. Odd, perhaps, to the casual observer, but brave, really, when you stop to think about it. It’s what we’d all like to do from time to time: slip into another skin.
For Erik, Jungle Boy and his adventure world was a safe base – a resting place. It allowed time for Erik to puzzle out Erik.
Also, characters don’t make social blunders. Erik could relax. Jungle Boy operated according to his jungle culture, and while Erik was green, he was immune to the unspoken social rules which confused, plagued and stressed him. There was this sense that if a social rule was offered up, Jungle Boy could try it out first – without judgment, without pressure and without expectation. Jungle Boy was Erik’s social buffer.
Jungle Boy was Erik before Erik figured himself out. Jungle Boy was the interim before self-awareness guided Erik, helped him to fine tune himself, polish the edges, refine the original bits. Jungle Boy was his armour, his alter-self because his real self was not ready yet. It was a foreigner living within.
Eventually, introducing Erik to autism helped him to shed one skin and grow into another.
Self-awareness cost Erik Jungle Boy, but in so doing, it helped him move into an updated version of himself.
That’s ok, we all move on.
But the joy, the reverence we felt, twelve years later, for that little costume is something that is hard to express.
“Jungle Boy helped you through a very confusing time, Erik.”
“I know. Thank you, Jungle Boy.”