I opened my talk at the 2019 HANd Autism & Neurodiversity Conference, themed as “My Autism Journey—Various Perspectives,” in this way, less for the little allegory itself, which is obvious and unremarkable, and more for my own realization with it, which comes near the end and then led into the substance of my talk. I also moderated a panel at the conference and closed it out. At some point during the day an autistic adult came up to me and said their favorite part of what I’d offered was this opening story. I valued that, and so I share it with you now…
A screwdriver says to a hammer, Hey, go screw in that screw. Like the rest of us are doing.
The hammer tries. It doesn’t work. The hammer says to the screwdriver, “It doesn’t work.”
The screwdriver says try harder.
The hammer tries again. And tries again. And again.
But it doesn’t work again and again and again, and it kind of makes a mess of the screw and the wall, and everyone’s noticing now.
Other screwdrivers are brought in to help the hammer, and sometimes the hammer fakes it alright, but mostly it’s just not working.
The hammer feels stressed and embarrassed and doesn’t understand.
The hammer’s parents, who are screwdrivers, are increasingly frustrated, endlessly frustrated, and maybe they wish their child wasn’t a hammer. But they are well intentioned nonetheless. They can’t quite understand being a hammer, and so they really can’t quite understand their child’s hammerness.
But then, finally, they try to accept it. They learn to say they love the hammer for who it is. They say, “Honey, we love and accept you for who you are. You don’t have to change for us. You don’t have to be a screwdriver.”
The hammer is relieved, but still confused and unsure who it’s supposed to be, especially when its parents say we love you, and we accept you, and now, well … “Now. Let’s break it down step by step again and get you to screw in that screw!”
And now let’s get some help from people trained specifically to turn hammers into screwdrivers—or at least to make the hammers turn screws.
Or maybe we’ll model it for you, playing with you on the floor. See, it’s fun screwing screws!
And here, you can have an M&M, and a gold star, and our approval if you just do the first step. Just the first step—put your head in the screw.
Maybe we should incentivize you: if you screw screws successfully enough times, we might let you finally hammer something. Once.
And here, here’s some visual picture support, pictures, so you’ll see what we mean, step by step—see, look, first put your head in the screw. Let’s just work on doing that easy first step.
And then you can learn to spin your head round and round, round and round.
And then maybe you won’t be so different.
And then maybe they will stop staring at you.
And then maybe they will stop making fun of you.
Then, maybe, you can have friends.
Then, maybe, you’ll be loved.
The hammer tries again and again, and again and again, and when the hammer exhausts, panics and melts down, and finally pulls back a little, it glimpses down a wall holding endless screws—hundreds and hundreds and thousands and millions of screws—screws that it will never ever really be able to turn the way screwdrivers do even if it tries all the days and all the years of all its life.
The big finish line was going to be: this has been my son’s childhood.
And if I’m brutally honest with myself about my own limitations and failings, this in many ways continues to be his young adulthood.
It’s not a particularly clever or inventive story, and I realized that when it occurred to me about a week ago. But what struck me about it—or rather what made me stricken and took my knees out and made my stomach lurch—is that even as I fancy myself a parent who has approached my autistic son with complete acceptance, and even as I have tried to be an advocate who has spent many years speaking and writing from and sharing a neurodiverse perspective, even so, much of my son’s life has been and continues to be built around trying to turn screws.
But I don’t get to say that’s been his story.
My son Nicholas is autistic. He is 18, turning 19 this birthday weekend. He is here with us today.
Nicholas’ story is his own. His perspective and experiences, his interpretation and mythology, his remembering and retelling—he owns all that. When he remembers or looks at a photo of a hard period—say, a school photo from a time he was being bullied—he makes his own choices about what he remembers and what he forgets, what he carries forward and what he leaves behind.
And one thing I do know about my son is that he’ll remember the good things, instead. Or at worst he’ll turn to the next photo and find something joyful to remember.
My story is an autism story, not an autistic story. It is not Nicholas’ story—again, that’s his and I have no claim to it—and it’s not the story of our family, our friends, or our close community, which all have so many perspectives.
The story I’ll be telling today is mine alone.
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I posted another except from my keynote address at the fall 2019 HANd Autism & Neurodiversity Conference here: “Poppa, Do You Have Autism?”
I invite you to read my articles on this site about autism and intellectual disability, partially listed here, including:
- Autism 101: Hating Your Autistic Child
- Accept or Reject: Part one of a series on autism value contrasts
- Top 10 List: Things to Remember When Working with Autistic Children
- On Blackness and Autism, Identity and Essence
- 7 Values to Live By: Autism Across Schools and Classrooms
- Autism Adulthood: Caring for the Future and the Present Moment