Lo and Behold
I would like to take time this week to tell the story of a very dear friend on the autism spectrum, whose experiences may serve as a cautionary tale. This friend, who did not find out about her autism until well into adulthood, spent a lifetime believing that the path to true happiness must lie in her ability to make sure those around her were happy. In childhood, she spent countless hours working to achieve an unattainable level of perfection, and failed on any number of levels, because, of course, perfection is unattainable. Faced with this inability to please everyone all of the time, and to never make waves, she buried herself in a never-ending series of secret, potentially self-destructive patterns of behavior. Even when she felt as though she had attained normalcy, there was that pesky voice in her head that would tell her she was wrong, she wasn’t like everybody else, she was crazy, she would never really be able to function the way everyone else did. Still she plowed on, doing almost all of the normal things that normal people were supposed to do, all the while making sure that everyone around her was happy, or so she thought. Getting married, having children, joining the PTA, these were all normal experiences that normal people had and surely if she could handle these then she would be normal. As she tells the story, though, it turns out she could not handle these. The efforts to please everyone—her spouse, children, extended family and friends, and even virtual strangers—took their toll both physically and emotionally. Through it all, she was convinced that she was happy, because her spouse, children, extended family and friends, and even the virtual strangers were happy.
Lo and behold, the spouse wasn’t that happy, after all. And as time went on, on any number of levels, it grew increasingly apparent that the children weren’t that happy, either. The others may have been—it was hard to tell—but the bottom line was her efforts to please everyone had failed miserably. My friend had never had a real understanding of what true happiness was because she was, after all, crazy, lazy, and certainly not normal … or so she thought. She had never had any reason to believe otherwise.
One day at a conference geared towards parents and educators of children with autism, my friend decided that for all of the times she had compared her own patterns of behavior with those of her children with autism, it might be worth looking into whether or not the diagnosis fit her too … and lo and behold. There was an answer, after all. As it turned out, she was not crazy. She was not lazy. And while she may not have fit the societal definition of “normal,” she had spent enough time on behalf of her own children learning what strategies could help individuals with autism feel at least home in their own skin that perhaps there was a chance that these strategies would work for her, too. And over time, they did, and still do. My best friend now knows she is not crazy and more importantly, she knows that the clearest path towards bringing happiness to others is to find happiness for oneself.
Why I am telling this story? After all, ‘tis the season, and perhaps a more holiday-themed reflection would be better suited to this time of the year. But I am reminded these days, for whatever reason, of all of the children I have encountered over the years in my career who have not been told about their diagnosis. These children and teens know they are different. They know where they have strengths and weaknesses. They may know that one day they will have to fend for themselves as adults. They know that they are expected to be able to do this, but if they are living in a cloud of uncertainty the odds that they will be able to do this are slim. Autism can be a scary word, but it doesn’t have to be. Approached with love, and understanding, and most of all, acceptance, autism can be part of a conversation with that young person who is struggling with self-acceptance. It does not have to be a scary conversation. Our children need the truth in order to be their own best advocates … their own best friends. For adults such as my friend, there was no high-functioning autism, or Asperger’s Syndrome, or PDD-NOS—autism wasn’t thought about as a spectrum. But today, we have the knowledge available to us as parents and teachers to give our children the tools they need to face the world. If you are reading this and you are a parent who fears what hearing the word “autism” will do to your child, please fear not. Full disclosure gives your child the best chance at figuring out who they are, where they fit in, and how to be their own best friend.