By Fionntán Macdonald
It must have begun with the bear. Whether it was the breathy falsetto, the spongy belly that begged to be squeezed, the creases drawn around his eyes in the old illustrations that made even those beady black marbles seem kind, or the velvety coat of the stuffed toy he lay with while he slept as a child; it became evident that he was fixated. Soon everything the little boy could see or touch had to be yellow, just like his favourite toy. It must have begun with that fat mustard bear with the red t-shirt.
It made sense, his parents thought. Their own parents had read the books years ago and they themselves had loved the old Disney films as children. Those were the first things they’d shared with the boy that made him stop rocking or flapping and focus on something. He seemed to follow the yellow bear across the screen, watching its face. They had struggled to get this level of attention from him before. He never seemed to look them in the eye, but always fixed his gaze on their lips or their noses. They imagined he was following the sounds, trying to grasp the words and gum them out, as infants do, until they can form the necessary sounds.
They became less sure over time. They often recalled that the first word he spoke wasn’t ‘Mama’ or ‘Dada,’ as would be expected. He was atypical from the start.
They’d wanted him to crawl, it seemed about time. He’d been making these motions over and over as he lay on the floor, these sort of twitches and flaps of his hands and feet that he would repeat infinitely. They assumed he was trying to move himself along, so they thought they’d help him get there. They put the bear on the TV one day and put the boy at the end of the rug it sat on. He had always sputtered and grunted until they moved him up close and they thought he would crawl to the yellow bear when they refused to lift him. So the experiment began.
He lay there for a moment, eyes fixed on the set and the kind creases of the eyes before he started to slap at the floor.
He looked to the two big people who gave him his bottles and changed his clothes who seemed unconcerned by his predicament. He bicycled his uncertain legs and flapped his arms on the floorboards.
Still nothing from the big people. They were just sitting there on the sofa, staring at him. They were normally so helpful.
Nothing. They just smiled and watched him. He’d have to do it himself. So he slapped his little hands on the rug (the big ones shifted), he raised himself onto his mushy elbows (they leaned forward), he transferred his weight to his fleshy thighs (edge of their seats) and balled up his puny fists. With one big motion, the sharp swelling of his parents’ lungs and a single great pull: he yanked the rug towards him.
The TV skittered across the floor and settled two feet in front of the baby, who looked up at the yellow bear and smiled.
The big ones crumpled, outsmarted by an infant. They struggled to grasp how this little brain worked: in some ways so advanced, able to solve problems and apply some element of thought to situations like this, but not crawling or speaking yet. They’d been around children before and none seemed to behave like the little boy they had brought into the world. So they had to re-strategize.
The rug was disposed of, the TV was placed back in its usual position and the baby was laid back on the floor. He seemed happy, at first, to watch the bear from that position, but he soon became impatient.
He glanced at the big people, then back to the bear, then again to his parents. They leaned over with anticipation, expecting him to crawl, but he just looked at them again and furrowed his translucent eyebrows. Suddenly, he spoke.
The first coherent syllable he ever wrapped his gums around was, “Help”.
His parents would later cite this as a defining moment, one where they really should have discerned that their firstborn son was a little different, that his young brain developing in a way perhaps weren’t prepared for. They were new parents though, they were hardly sure what a child was really supposed to be like, maybe this was just his personality. It was normal for a child to find comfort in familiar things. So what if everything had to be yellow now? It brightened up the joint.
He was just particular. He had his favourite colour and he liked to stick with it, so when he would rip off any clothes that weren’t bright turmeric they didn’t think much of it, they just put him in a yellow onesie. They didn’t mind having to paint his room, it had needed a coat of fresh colour ever since they’d bought the house and the saffron walls made the room look sunny. So what if all he would eat was scrambled egg or tinned sweetcorn. He was just particular.
It wouldn’t become much of an issue until he was older, when his siblings arrived and his differences became evident. The other children were easier and seemed to develop differently too. Social skills came quickly, they were soon able to circulate rooms full of adults and hold simple conversations, often drawing people into their orbits like little blonde suns.
He was a moon, circulating on the circumference of their field, always orbiting but rarely colliding with them. If given the opportunity he would remove himself from the sphere completely and retreat to a quiet corner to read.
People always seemed so complicated and it was becoming increasingly hard for him to gauge their reactions to things. He didn’t understand until much later that it was because he was ageing and that dynamics shifted as people grew. It seemed to him that things had been perfectly fine before, everything with an order and process that could easily be understood but now things were so uncertain, so hard to read.
Books made sense to him, he could see it all in his head and each character’s thoughts and emotions were evident to him on the page, not veiled with an obtuse facial expression or clouded by some small inflection of the voice he was supposed to glean meaning from. Why couldn’t people be more straightforward and just explain themselves like the characters he read about did? He began to wish people would just tell him what to do and how to feel, to just take it out of his hands since he seemed so incapable of understanding their strange world with all its hues of meaning and shades of grey.
He liked his yellow world, bright and simple and uniform. He liked the simple little bear in the red t-shirt and his friends who could all be so easily understood.
He began to see this warmer, cuddlier reality as his frame of reference for the wider world he had to exist in. It became easier for him to understand people if he could look at them as one of the characters he understood so clearly. His little sister was like the pink piglet the bear was so fond of; small and anxious but sweet and reliable. His younger brother was a lot more like the tiger who seemed to cannon into the other animals’ peace and ricochet out again with hyperactive energy.
He became more comfortable interacting with the world in this way and began to see himself like the boy in the books who entered into the adventures of the animals at intervals. He was a voyeur in the world of social cues and unspoken signals, unable to comprehend the messages that passed between breaths, unspoken and elliptical, and was much happier watching from the confines of his yellow sphere of relative safety.
It was only much later that he would come to understand why he had to view the world in this way.
In his adulthood he became aware of a theory regarding his beloved bear and all his friends. The hypothesis was that each of the characters represented a pathology, and could be linked to a definite psychiatric diagnosis. He discovered that a pair of doctors had devised a test by which a person could answer a questionnaire and be aligned with the characters, who each represented a different archetype.
His curiosity peaked, he began working his way through the test. It operated on a sliding scale with the respondent marking their position from “Strongly Disagree” to “Strongly Agree” and he worked his way through the first few until he was suddenly struck dumb by the ninth statement.
I have been sad most of my life.
He paused for a moment and reflected on a small boy who retreated into a world of yellow; simple, uniform, easy to understand. He thought about the child who read books alone in the playground at school, the boy who rarely seemed to make friends and never seemed to keep them. The peculiar teenager who spent long nights alone in a bedroom that once seemed so sunny but now had faded into the xanthous yellow of decay.
He completed the test. He didn’t expect it to offer much insight, but in truth it had. His sister was a lot more like the piglet than even he realised. This character represented anxiety, with which his sister was diagnosed in adolescence. The tiger which reminded him of his younger brother, so charged and eruptive, was an easy analogue for ADHD. His brother would be diagnosed in his early twenties.
His own weighting was not what he would have wanted. He was not so like the boy at all, and his beloved bear was the one he shared the least with. He closely resembled a small kangaroo who was not often focused on, a side character with a minor role, who represented Autism.
He had been fifteen when his diagnosis was confirmed, and when he had begun to wrestle with how his mind operated. He had receded, often, into his yellow world as the young joey had done with his Mother’s pouch in the old books and films he so loved and he was still looking for a way to get back to that honey tinted haven he once had.
In this way he was not surprised. He had always known he was atypical, now knowing he was neurodiverse he felt relief if anything. Now he knew why he was so particular, why he had struggled so much to understand the world around him. The label of Autism became to him another haven, another yellow world. Safe. Uniform. Easy to understand.
The pathology test revealed that he was a 97% match for Autism, and a 100% match for chronic depression. This was represented by the droopy, blue donkey which he had never really liked as a child. The one who’s mood was chronically low, who was always despondent and who seemed to experience his entire stream of consciousness in a state of abject hopelessness.
He hated that he was the donkey.
He would find out as he aged that neuroadiversities are not mutually exclusive to each other. Living with both ASD and Chronic Depression would always be difficult for him, no matter what he did, but in a way he was glad to finally understand it, to be able to deal with it in some way. Even through the lens of Winnie the Pooh.
He started writing. He remembered how he used to escape into the pages of his books, and he wanted to make more worlds he could escape to. He hoped he had found a way, finally, to make people understand the boy in the yellow world.
Fionntán is a writer from Belfast who writes poetry, prose and drama. Fionntán says: “I am fascinated by the diverse, the atypical and the altogether different and hope to make a career writing about the strange and unusual things that fascinate me.”
Fionntán is on social media through the page Fionn’s Notebook, which can be found on Facebook and Instagram.