The expectation that many people have is that my son can count toothpicks just by seeing them fall. Thanks to the magic of Hollywood and Dustin Hoffman, there is a misconception that one of autism’s perks is that you can do parlor tricks with dropped items.
My son can’t count toothpicks lying on the table, much less flying through the air. Despite being non-verbal with autism, the idea that people could believe his “superpower” is an actual superpower can be a bit tough to wrap my head around.
Television is obsessed with it. A kid can’t simply be on the spectrum. If he is, he has to be a doctor at nine years old or immediately solve some really difficult problem that all the neurotypical people struggle with for the hour. My issue with televised autism is that their only way to spin it as a positive is to make that person capable of something amazing in “our” world. It implies that there’s beauty hidden in someone special… despite autism.
That bothers me, if I’m being honest. My son has autism and there are no real amazing tricks up his sleeve. He doesn’t pull rabbits out of hats or make the refrigerator disappear (the food in it is a different story). He’s Lucas. He’s my son, he’s wonderful, and I’m proud of everything he does. He’s not a sweet, kind, and gentle boy in spite of autism. In many ways, it’s because of it.
All that being said, there’s still a whole world out there for him to experience. While he might not need a major skill to prove his worth, he should find one to better his life. As a kid, he needs to discover his passions.
After all, this is the age. He’s twelve and, just like his sister, he needs to start finding out what he loves about the world around him. The only problem? He can’t tell me. While my daughter might suggest singing or tennis, Lucas can’t suggest any possibilities. Forget being non-verbal, he’s just not aware of what is out there. He can’t hint at any activities that might appeal to him without having done them first.
So, that’s on me. As his father, I need to find, introduce, and, in some cases, drag him to the fun possibilities out there. It’s a shot in the dark each time and the results can be varied, even for things he has already done.
There are disasters. There was this one autism-friendly dog park debacle that left him in tears for the day because he didn’t want to walk around. I have watched him meltdown at fun-time restaurants and try to escape from Christmas Tree lightings. In the end, it’s enough to make many parents in my position wonder why they even bothered.
Couples battle over it and the guilt hangs heavy in the air. What is the point? No one else wants to go and neither does he. Then why do we do it?
I do it because, for every dog park disaster, there’s a bowling alley success story. For every restaurant tear fest, there’s a game of tee ball out back that sent him smiling. I do it because his passion is out there. He needs to find it. If it inconveniences my life for a bit, so be it. I’ve been inconvenienced by people I cared far less about than my boy.
This weekend, we painted. I had decided that Lucas was going to paint a Jackson Pollock-style work of art for the house. The canvas was his and anything he did would be accepted. The final product, no matter the result, would be hung in my home. People would be told, “Oh. That’s a Lucas.”
I set him up and grit my teeth. While he’s accommodating with most suggestions, I knew that the wrong choice of activity could cause agitation. A part of me was worried I would have to eat the costs of art supplies we wouldn’t use again. Luckily, that didn’t happen.
Lucas followed along and didn’t try to run away. Watching him swipe the brush along the painting filled me with joy. I knew that he was creating something on his own and I knew that it had been my idea. All of that made for an amazing Saturday.
You’re probably thinking, “Aw, that’s nice. He loved it.”
Nah. Not really. Each brush stroke was a bargain. I’d dip the brush in the paint and hand it to him. He would then run it all around the blank slate before turning to me with the brush outstretched in his hand. It was like, “Here. Are we good? Give me the iPad back.”
That’s how we did it until his mood started to imply that he was done. Just as he reached the threshold of his patience, I ended his portion of the painting. I didn’t want this to be a negative memory for him. If I was going to ask this of him again, which I am, I didn’t want him to remember it as a torturous event.
After filling in some of the blank space, I signed Lucas’s name to the bottom and hung it in the stairwell to my basement. Full disclosure – when I first saw the final product, I wasn’t blown away. However, once it was hung up with good lighting, I couldn’t stop looking at it. It actually looks fantastic. I love that we made it and I love that it’s hanging in my house. I am so proud of him.
Is he a hidden artist? Is this his toothpick-counting moment? Very possible, but kind of doubtful. It’s not his secret feel-good TV power, but it has the potential to be the activity he enjoys and an outward expression of his creativity over time. This can be to him what little league might be to another child. Maybe.
Then again, maybe not. If he suddenly decides he doesn’t like it, we can put the brushes away. We will, however, keep looking for more. He doesn’t know the options that life has for him, but I do. It’s my responsibility to lead him to them. If the roles were reversed, he would do the same for me.
FROM AUTISM AWARENESS TO AUTISM ACCEPTANCE TO AUTISM APPRECIATION
Watch: James Guttman speaks to the Massapequa SEPTA about Autism Awareness, Autism Acceptance, and Autism Appreciation.
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