I wasn’t going to write anything to mark World Autism Awareness Day this year. This morning, Facebook was kind enough to remind me of what I posted one year ago today. I re-read that post, and still agree with pretty much everything I wrote.
But last night, Riley mentioned that she needed to wear blue to school today for Autism Awareness Day. That led to a discussion with her of why Veronica and I aren’t wearing the puzzle piece pin (yes, I realize the irony in my blog’s title) or putting up blue light bulbs today.
Something about the conversation nagged me overnight. Maybe it was the exclusion of the one true expert on the subject of autism in our house. So this morning, I decided to ask Ryan for HIS thoughts on the subject.
“Ryan, you know it’s Autism Awareness Day, right?” I asked.
“Yes,” he answered. “We have to wear the puzzle piece today.”
I explained how the puzzle piece was a symbol of a particular organization whose views we no longer support. Trying to find a simple explanation for this, I settled on “it’s an organization that wants to speak about autism but doesn’t speak to people with autism.”
As those words were coming out of my mouth, I realized I had the opportunity to add one voice to the effort to change that.
“Ryan, you are an expert on autism,” I told him. “I can think all day and night about what it’s like to have autism but I don’t know the way you do, and I never will. So what would you want people to know about it?”
He thought for a moment, between bites of waffle. In that moment, I realized how far we had come in addressing Ryan’s diagnosis with him, and empowering him to understand that “different” does not mean “less.”
“I’m not stupid,” he said. “People with autism are just as smart as everyone else. Sometimes smarter.”
Maybe I was hoping for something more profound, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized he’s right — this is an important point. It is our natural tendency to think of people who present differently from what we expect as somehow less. Less intelligent, less valuable, less important.
I pushed him if he had anything more to say on the subject.
“[Autism] is good,” he said.
“What’s good about it?” I asked
“It’s easy for me to work hard at things, and I get to think about the things that interest me all the time.”
And with that, he finished his breakfast and went about his morning routine.
This should not have surprised me. I think the biggest growth we’ve seen in the last year is not in our thoughts about autism, but in Ryan’s. He has made it quite clear that he’s very comfortable with who he is. He recognizes that there are differences between him and his peers. That sometimes causes frustration, but he does not dwell on it or blame autism. He is thankful for his focus and drive, which he recognizes as part of autism, because they allow him to accomplish the goals he sets for himself.
In the end, my son said it better than I ever could. Just as he did earlier this school year (his essay is reprinted below). That’s why I’m glad I asked an expert.
“How Social Life Should Run”
Middle school is a mad place. We either fit in or we don’t. And if we do, great. I always catch in the corner of my eye, people walking down in big groups laughing. And then there is the extra person. The one who is thought to fit in with the big group, but really, they don’t. That person may struggle to make any friends at all. Do we notice that person? Maybe, that person with the difficult social life is us. If we don’t fit in during middle school, then life could feel like a huge waste. What’s the point of even going to school?
Once in fifth grade, I said something weird, and everyone started laughing at me. I didn’t know that I would have that bad of an impact on others. In fact, no one needed to react towards me in that way. Back then, I was considered maybe a little bit unusual. I could kind of relate to Sheldon Cooper from “Big Bang Theory” in which he struggles with social life. I barely invited any friends to my house and when I did, we only did what I wanted to do. I didn’t even offer my friends a “beverage.” But at least I had those couple of friends.
I remember back a couple years ago, I had no social connection to the world. At camp during the summer of 2011, everyone else would be playing video games, and I’d be in the corner, writing hockey stats. I cried at camp every day because I thought there were snakes there going to eat me. Now days, I wouldn’t do that. Other kids always attempted to make me feel that someone or something was out to get me. That’s what made me spend my whole entire camp experience in fear. However, being on the autism spectrum side, I couldn’t follow any social rules back then. I had to visit a social group to learn things about social rules and how to make friends, and I still visit there today. But back then, it was a lot worse. I didn’t talk about anything besides hockey stats. Other kids thought I was weird because of that. And I don’t deserve that type of treatment.
Although I am not exactly like most kids, I still have made tremendous improvement. I will never become a popular kid, as I never had been. I have not only gained social skills, I have gained hockey skills, and upper body strength. And I get the respect I deserve. So why shouldn’t anyone else? So from now on, let’s respect everyone, no matter what race or gender they are. No more “roasting” people, because one day, you’ll be roasted. I believe that it’s okay to be different. Of course it is, no two people are alike in middle school. However, if someone may need extra help, we will give them that extra help!