When it comes to Autism, the entertainment world has a very distinct way of presenting things. The feel-good movies of the Summer and the very-special television episodes like to show us the error of judging anyone at first glance.
The stories are simple. A character on the Autism spectrum demonstrates all the preconceived ideas of how those without Autism think they might act. Maybe they stumble over a social situation or can’t join friends for a rousing game of basketball. Everyone hangs their head and joins in the mental pity of how Autism has robbed this young person of small talk and foul shots. Cue the sad music.
But then, it happens. This hidden treasure of a human being pops up with a shocking superpower. Look! He might have Autism, but he’s a doctor! He’s not only a doctor…but he’s the best doctor in the world! The other doctors, all wedged into their neurotypical boxes of thought, can’t see the issues that our main character can. He solves the case, scores the goal, and makes the correct diagnosis all thanks to Autism. Everyone is happy. After he does, he refuses to hug anyone because, well, that’s another Autism movie thing.
I have nothing against the sentiment in these shows or movies. It’s inspiring. I know. Here’s the issue, though. What if my non-verbal seven year old son never becomes a doctor? What if he doesn’t rise up the ranks to the shock of many and achieve unexpected success? What if he never does all the magic tricks that my cable box says Autism should provide him?
The answer is nothing. Nothing will happen. I’ll love him just the same.
That’s hard to imagine given the themes that TV and movies present in order to jerk your tears. The common message that many offer is that Autism is a detrimental affliction that only becomes celebrated when the person with it somehow excels in our world. It’s that final moment where the crowd jumps to their feet in applause, the bullies are left with expressions of stunned shock, or the grizzled detective finally approaches and says, “I may not understand your methods, but you’re alright, McGinty.”
Guess what, Detective Teevee. McGinty’s already alright. He was alright the whole time, even if he didn’t do anything considered amazing in your world.
My son hasn’t solved any medical mysteries or counted hundreds of fallen toothpicks in one glance. I doubt he ever will. Do you know something he did do? After years of being a bull in a china shop with his lunch plates, I watched him, a year or so ago, carefully pick up a bowl of cereal and balance it in his hands as he walked from the dining room to the den. Then in the most ginger manner, he placed it down beside him and finished them. Nothing spilled. It was a crowning achievement.
They don’t have a TV show about that. No grizzled police vet is sauntering over with an outstretched hand and a, “Way to go on balancing them Frosted Flakes, McGinty. I guess we were all wrong about you.”
No, but it’s still a huge accomplishment and one that to Lucas, is worth more than any cracked mysteries or science fair ribbons.
I don’t love my child because he might be a doctor or a lawyer one day. If you love your child for that reason, then you are loving your child for the wrong reason. Sorry to put it so bluntly, but it’s true. Make no mistake, it’s commendable for them to reach success and you have every right to be proud if it happens. You don’t, however, need that validation from the world to tell you that your child is special. They already are.
Hospitals can replace doctors at will. Parents, however, can never replace their children. No matter what place a child has in your family, you know how true this is. Even the wheels who squeak the least would leave an unimaginable hole in their absence.
People will sometimes see a caregiver to a child like my son and remark that the child gives that caregiver a purpose. They will clench their hand and assure them that they are important. We say things like, “What would he do without you?” You can see the value in that person giving the care.
But what about my son’s importance? In so many ways, he gives my life a whole different layer of meaning and responsibility. He’s showed me ways to look at the world and redefined what is means for me to be important. People should say things to him like, “You make your dad feel special. What would he do without you?”
If we wake up next week and Lucas has fingerpainted a masterpiece, directed a documentary, and cured the common cold, I will be proud beyond words. I won’t, however, love him anymore than I would if he never says a word in his life. He’s not a potential football player, card-counter, or medical marvel. He’s my boy. That’s what makes him special to me.