[Part 4 of a six-part series presenting my talk on autism delivered at the Autism and the Pursuit of Happiness conference at the University of North Carolina earlier this year. To read the other parts in the series, please see the links at the bottom of this post; the series starts with Part 1 here. Thank you! ~ rah]
The fourth value contrast I want to talk about today, which might initially seem like an especially false dichotomy, is ACCEPTANCE OR SELF-ACCEPTANCE.
My son started juggling a few years ago. I can do a three-ball cascade — badly and for a short time in a burst — and I showed Nicholas. And then he really wanted to do it.
He practiced and practiced … and practiced and practiced … and practiced some more, every single day behind his closed bedroom door. His developmental worker Sarah juggled with him, a day camp counselor named Dane juggled with him.
Nicholas loved juggling and then loved succeeding at it, and his dedication and determination were awesome. He became good enough to start trying it at camp talent shows, and then he performed in community settings and at school talent shows in fifth and sixth grades, the latter in this video here.
I feel guilty about this. This video is from an evening show for families. But I was also told that his classmates had burst out in huge cheers when Nicholas performed during programs at school during the day.
Kids were wowed by his talent and by the fact it was Nicholas, this — strange? disabled? weird? — kid. He became more accepted, better appreciated, and better liked. Children treated him with greater kindness. He had a burst of new friendships and playdates around the time, which he wanted so much.
And I feel guilty because that all was exactly my intention.
Nicholas was thrilled by the cheers. By the admiration of his classmates. By the compliments and affection. It made him feel great about himself.
But of course that feeling reveals dependence on the acceptance of others: the conditionality of being affirmed by others.
Most of us have that need. Most children, especially those approaching and then in their teens, struggle with their need for affirmation.
I feel guilty because if he couldn’t juggle, Nicholas would not be one ounce less worthy of love and acceptance.
And there are children very similar to Nicholas who can’t juggle.
I feel like I helped Nicholas receive external acceptance, but didn’t do all the harder work that would have led to greater acceptance for Nicholas even without his juggling talents, or at least that I didn’t do that work as successfully.
It reminds me of the whole autistic savant idea — the common Rainman-type question that’s asked when someone finds out about someone’s autism.
For autistic people who do have special talents, it’s right and good to share them and to have them appreciated.
But of course such talents don’t make anyone more worthy of kindness and acceptance.
And if someone like Nicholas is treated better because of those talents, it’s worth at least pausing to support the more noble notion that any affirmation of self-worth is coming out of what sharing a talent says about the quality of one’s character — bravery, kindness, connection — so it’s more about who someone is, not what someone can do.
And not what we look like, either. Lookism is another societal and cultural albatross upon both special needs children and children generally.
Somewhat similarly, earlier, throughout elementary school, Nicholas’ IEP in school noted his strengths and weaknesses, as IEPs do, and among Nicholas’ strengths was that he was a handsome child.
When this first appeared on an IEP, I asked about it. It seemed odd to me at the time more than anything. One teacher — a great teacher of his and now a dear friend of mine — explained its relevance: being good-looking was a strength for Nicholas because he would be treated better by peers and teachers. That’s just the way it was, she said.
And she was right. That did work for him. It benefited him. But again, taking advantage of lookism was affirming a value system I abhor and wanted Nicholas to feel no part of.
Children — and adults, too — shouldn’t require exceptionality to be loved and accepted and included.
As parents and community members, I hope we teach, and hopefully maintain a healthy respect for, the idea that everyone is equally precious and valuable, deserving of acknowledgment and respect and love, including all autistic people — autistic people with and without obvious talents or what our culture currently deems as good looks.
As parents, the responsibility is to raise your child, yes, but also to help others and so to raise the culture.
And then, too, I hope we teach that acceptance and love ultimately have to originate from within if they are going to be authentic and lasting.
That all said, and sincerely so, I am very proud of how hard Nicholas works at his juggling and how good at it he has become due to his dedication. He is proud of it, too.
When he was younger, he had difficulty even tracking a ball: it would roll by him or hit him in the head if thrown before he’d even move a muscle to respond.
Now, due to his hard work and perseverance, his coordination in this area is well beyond most people’s, including mine. And when Nicholas accomplishes a new ability or routine at home, he’s very proud of it on his own terms, without applause. And I’m even more glad for that.
So, with that entirely true excuse, this is a 1-minute video of Nicholas four-ball juggling yesterday [the day before my presentation at Autism and the Pursuit of Happiness, in our living room, just as he was beginning to learn four-ball juggling]:
Nicholas, who has an MR co-diagnosis, also has a sometimes surprising intellectual capacity, which is less easily discerned by most people than are things like his juggling and deft spinning of basketballs. The fifth value contrast, one that addresses an issue shared by parents of autistic children and autistic adults, and also the one most awkwardly worded right now, is: YOU AS AUTISM OR YOU AS YOU.
And that one comes next in Part 5 of the series. In case you missed any of the articles, here are links to all of them, and if you’re so kind as to share the posts on social media or to leave a comment on this page, it is always deeply appreciated:
Part 1: Accept or Reject
Part 2: Grieve or Live
Part 3: Support or Save
Part 4: Acceptance or Self-Acceptance
Part 5: You As Autism or Autism as You
Part 6: Independence or Connection