September 16, 2010

An Opportunity

What is wrong with autists?!

photo credit: Polona Somrak

I received an email asking me to write an article about this.

So I will! I like a good challenge…

The reason it’s a challenge is because I don’t feel myself to be any kind of authority on the subject. My experience is limited:

I spent a year of my life working with dis-empowered young people for a charity in England called the Prince’s Trust. My job was to recruit 15 young people (aged 15 – 25), and then lead them through a 12 week course, which included many different things, for example a two week community project, a week of team building exercises in Wales (canoeing, rock climbing, bridge-building), and a week with the fire brigade. I ran three such courses, and on one of them I recruited Rosie, a 16 year old girl with Asperger’s syndrome—a form of autism… (more about Rosie later ).

I have seen two clients with autism. Both of them came to me because their parents wanted me to see them. On both occasions, I warned the parents that I was not prepared to see their children with a view to ‘healing’ them, but they insisted on coming, so I agreed. Both times, I felt strongly that there was nothing ‘wrong’ with the kids: I wanted to work on the parents instead!

That’s my experience of autism. But I suppose that I do have a strong opinion about it, so here goes…

There is nothing wrong with someone who has autism. Yes, they are different from what most people call ‘normal’, but since when was that a bad thing?
Somehow, our society treats people who are different with the view that we must ‘fix’ them. It is so, so sad.
There was a time when people who were different were treated with respect. Now all too often they are treated like ‘freaks’.
Let me tell you something: no-one is normal. You are not normal, I am not normal. There is no such thing as normal. Variety is something to celebrate, not something to be afraid of! Variety is reality: not two things in this universe are the same. Diversity is universal.

Rosie, the girl with Asperger’s syndrome, was to me quite beautiful. She was confused, angry, paranoid… many different shades of insecurity. But underneath all of that, she was so amazing. She had the courage to speak the truth in every situation. That’s actually not normal at all – it’s completely extraordinary!
One of the ‘symptoms’ of asperger’s is that they don’t know how to lie. They don’t understand deceit. If you ask someone with Asperger’s if they are lying, they just get very, very confused. They cannot comprehend the meaning of it.

I found that quite admirable, and I think that it’s something our society could learn a lot from…

And you know what – did her insecurity come from her condition, or did it come from the way she had been treated all her life – as someone that needed to be changed? Can you imagine, if all your life people had been trying to ‘fix’ you, constantly, day in and day out. Never being accepted for who you are?

A wise man once said:

“what we need, is for someone to come to our ear and say: ‘you are you, and I love you’. To be accepted as we are – that is the beginning and the end of life

Imagine if our society welcomed and encouraged people to be different. Imagine if you could do whatever you felt like doing, just because you felt like doing it! Imagine being able to wear whatever clothes you wanted… or to dance naked through the streets. Imagine being able to express whatever you wanted, however you wanted, whenever and wherever you wanted. Imagine being able to live in whatever way you wanted… and to be accepted for it.

But we are conditioned all our lives to ‘fit in’, to stay within certain limits, not to upset the ‘order’ of society.

Rosie didn’t make it past the second week of my course. It’s actually a fairly amusing story so I’ll tell you: the second week of the course we all went to Wales for the ‘outward bound’ team-building week…

It’s a 6 hour drive, and by the time we get there, I am exhausted already. (The other kids on the course are not an easy bunch, to say the least – drug problems, ex convicts, a pregnant 16 year old, and so on, so the 6 hour bus drive seems like a lifetime – I have to constantly ‘remind’ them that it’s not ok to: smoke on the bus / fight / throw each others belongings out the window). And when we arrive, Rosie refuses to get off the bus. She announces that she is

“ready to go home now”.

So I sit with her and explain that we’ve just arrived, and that driving back to London for 6 hours is really out of the question. But – and know this about autists: it’s very hard to get them to change their minds! In the end, she tries to walk back to London! I walk with her for an hour, through fields and woods, until she gets too tired to go on, and then we walk back together to the bus. In the morning, I take her to the train station, and she goes home.

That course was simply too much for Rosie. I was actually surprised that she made it as far as she did (past week one!). But I do wonder…

What would Rosie and other autists be like if our society really accepted them as they are? And it’s not just society at large: it starts at home. I’m sorry if you are a parent of an autistic child reading this, because what I’m about to say may not be easy for you to hear, but I’ll say it anyway:
In my (admittedly very limited) experience, parents are often extremely afraid, stressed, and un-accepting of their children. Look, it must be the hardest thing – every moment of every day is an almost unbearable challenge – to be the parent of an autistic child is INCREDIBLY difficult. I’m not making a judgement, because I have no idea how I would handle it, day in and day out…
But I do really wonder how it would be if parents, and society at large, would be totally accepting of their autistic children.

There is a truly wonderful book called “And there was Light”, written by Jacques Lusseyran. It’s biographical: Lusseyran was blinded at the age of 6; became a leader of the French Resistance in world war II, was captured and sent to Buchenwald concentration camp, which he survived!

He describes at the start of the book how his parents not only accepted his blindness, but encouraged him to live a completely normal life – and as a result, he was able to ‘see’. He did not see in the same way that a sighted person sees, but he ‘saw’ light. This was how he was able to survive 15 months in a Nazi camp. He explains that as a child, he was able to climb trees, run through fields, and do all the other things that his friends were doing, because he wasn’t afraid: his parents encouraged him to be fearless. They didn’t treat him any differently after he became blind.
Lusseyran also writes about how sorry he felt for other blind children who were always being told to ‘be careful’, and being over-protected by their parents. Those children became imprisoned by their blindness; victims of other people’s fear.

So I do wonder whether it’s similar with autism. Perhaps if we were able to really accept autism; but not only to accept it; to actively support and encourage autistic children to express their own unique abilities and gifts. To truly LOVE them as they are. More: if we were to treat autistic children the way we should treat ALL children: as our teachers. I am sure that if we were able to do that, our society would benefit even more than those children would.

Kahlil Gibran said:

“Keep me away from the wisdom that does not cry, the philosophy which does not laugh and the greatness which does not bow before children.”

We must bow before ALL children. When we look at a child and see something ‘wrong’, we create a tragedy. How can a child be wrong?

Jacques Lusseyran said:

“Light is in us even if we have no eyes.”

Well, light (and intelligence, and beauty) is in the autist too. Do we have the eyes to see it and to learn from it? Because autism, like everything else in this world, IS THERE FOR A REASON.

*Another great book is “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time”, by Mark Haddock. It’s an award winning novel written from the perspective of a 15 year old boy who has Aspergers Syndrome.

I was inspired to add this article today after reading THIS – a wonderful piece of writing by a woman who found out that her son had an apparently incurable disease, and reacted with great courage, honesty, and love. If you made it this far, and enjoyed this article about autism and children, you’ll certainly like that one. I recommend it.

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