Ron Fournier is the former Washington Bureau Chief of the Associated Press and began his career as a journalist covering the Arkansas state legislature and then-governor Bill Clinton. When Clinton was elected president, Fournier and his family moved to Washington, D.C., where he covered the White House for a number of years.
As with any parent successful in his or her career, Fournier was away from his wife and children a great deal and realized he had missed out on connecting with them during their formative years, especially his son Tyler, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s as a pre-teen. When Fournier transitioned into a less demanding position with the National Journal, freeing up his time, his wife Lori suggested he take Tyler on a series of trips in order to bond with and get to know his son, and perhaps teach him some fundamentals of human engagement and interaction that are difficult for Aspies. In the process, Ron learns even more valuable life lessons from Tyler than he is seeking to impart. Love That Boy, a title from a statement by George W. Bush to Fournier, is Ron’s memoir of those road trips.
Each chapter focuses on a particular trip or visit. Fournier introduces Tyler to Presidents Bush and Clinton and also takes him to various historic sites, such as Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello residence and a Teddy Roosevelt museum. Ron tries to draw Tyler out from his inner world, asking him pointed questions about his particular insights and responses. He also gently admonishes Tyler about proper decorum and custom in his interactions. In their various experiences, Ron is continually surprised by Tyler’s unique reactions and thoughts, as well as frustrated when Tyler fails to engage as Ron had hoped. At times, Tyler’s behavior is nerve-wracking, particularly when speaking to former presidents Bush and Clinton, but both presidents are keenly interested in Tyler–his interests, his mannerisms, and his encyclopedic and photographic knowledge of American history. As they’re saying goodbye, Bush looks Ron in the eye and says, “Love that boy,” an admonishment that takes on significant resonance as the book develops.
Fournier intersperses important social commentary on child-raising throughout. He interviews other parents of children on the autism spectrum, as well as parents of “neurotypicals,” studying the expectations we have of our children and whether we are seeking to mold our children into our own image or allow them to be their own idealized selves. He also discusses the idea that we all have an inner Aspie, that we are all neurodivergent in our way and that human progress and achievement are built on neurodiversity.
My wife and I often wonder if one of our children is on the spectrum. As with others we know, he often has a very singular drive and focus. We will send him to his room to get dressed in the morning, and half an hour later, he’s still back there. He has forgotten why he went because something else was on his mind, an idea that had so entranced him that he could think of nothing else. This sense of focus is often a strength. When Diana reads to him and asks him to narrate the story back to her, his ability far exceeds his brother’s. He’ll often stick with a complicated Lego kit until its done. We have to physically remove him from the project just to make him take a bathroom break. Fournier says that Tyler sometimes staves off genuine two-way human interaction with constant joking and humor, and our son can often keep a joke running well past its due. One of his favorites is never to respond in kind when I give him a five or a fist bump. I hold out my hand for a five–he bumps it. I hold out my fist–he slaps it with a five. Sometimes he just head-butts my hand. Tyler can be enormously sweet; so can our son. He’s a joy and a wonder to behold, as Ron ultimately finds with Tyler. However, he does not suffer crowds very easily. When the room is too loud or too full of new people, he retreats within himself. He’ll have us hold him and bury his face in our shoulders, refusing to meet and talk to people we try to introduce him to. In the past, we’ve rolled our eyes and sighed apologetically to our friends and family for this. Now, I think I’m going to make allowances for it. It’s an opportunity to explain to people something special about his personality, that this apparent social faux pas indicates some deep giftings within.
Sure, his mannerisms exasperate us, but his focus and discipline in certain tasks are so impressive and praiseworthy that we have to watch that we don’t favor him too much. He’s a little daredevil, too, injuring himself often from an ill-advised climb or stunt, and his recovery is remarkable. A couple of months ago, he was climbing the rail of our wheelchair ramp. He lost his footing and fell from a good height to the concrete driveway, face-first. I arrived shortly after this happened to hear him wailing, bandages freshly applied to his wounds. About an hour after the incident, he was ready to go back at it and try to conquer the stunt once again. I see great things for this child–provided he survives.
I’m deeply intrigued by him. He is so much not like us. I don’t know where he came from. He has startlingly beautiful red hair, to boot. If he does have Asperger’s, then I’m not convinced that is a syndrome, disability, or inability of any sort but a precious gift from God. I’m thankful this book sparked a deeper appreciation for his uniqueness, but it also calls us to celebrate our more “normal” children and deeply examine our expectations, like the unfair expectations I’ve burdened my oldest with. He has interests that I cannot understand (nor see the use of), but I should be proud that he is passionate, about a great many things, and seek how to connect with him where his interests lie. This is how we best steward our children and release them to make a difference in the world.