Shut Up About Your Perfect (Autistic) Kid!

Summer Clarinet
Summer Clarinet. Summer Clarinet

Have you ever wondered about those articles that tell you how a young person has "overcome autism" to achieve all sorts of impressive goals?  While there are some highly motivated people with autism who actually make all those things happen, such people are rare.  Much more often, the reality is slanted, colored, or otherwise presented in a misleading manner so as to suggest a level of self-motivated, self-directed social success that isn't really, truly real.

To illustrate how easy it is to mislead without actually falsifying the facts, I went through the following exercise.  First, I bragged about my son's achievements and abilities -- all of which are absolutely real.  Then, I explained the reality behind each claim.  As you'll see, while there's plenty to be proud of, the reality and the image are not the same.

Wow -- What a Guy!

Let me tell you about my son.  He's an amazing guy -- his autism doesn't hold him back!  For example:

  • At 18, he's played clarinet solos in front of audiences of 200+, marched in the town parade, and even plays with the adults in the summer Town Band.
  • He's won multiple blue ribbons at our county fair for his unique artwork -- and last year won a championship ribbon.
  • He's well-versed in classical music and fine art, enjoys concerts at major concert halls in Philadelphia and New York, and explores the world's top art museums in search of the works of Monet, Picasso, and Van Gogh.
  • He has a girlfriend, with whom he has lunch almost daily, as well as buddies who invite him out to the movies and come over to enjoy Halloween and other special events.
  • He volunteers at the local library, reads aloud to younger children, helps to foster kittens, and is eager to train for a career in early childhood education.  Even now, he's preparing his application to the local junior college.

    The Story Behind the Story

    Now: let's look more closely at all these claims -- every one of which, by the way, is true.

    • Yes, he does play clarinet moderately well.  In order to make that happen, I spent years shadowing his lessons, learning along with him, and modeling how to practice.  He soloed because, in grade 8, the other students were too self-aware and self-conscious to raise their hands; as he didn't know he was "supposed" to be self-conscious, he agreed to do it.  He did a great job!
    • The ribbons he won (yes, he really did win them!) were for Lego projects he build in his room.  I (his mom) insisted that he should enter the fair -- largely because it meant a lot to ME to see him win ribbons!  He wasn't concerned about the ribbon -- just about getting his Legos safely back into his room!
    • It took several painful years of regular, short exposures to museums/theater  and related homeschool activities to get him to the point where he was able to be in a concert hall or art museum for more than a few minutes.  Once he got into the habit, however, he discovered that he loved both. 
    • His girlfriend, another teen with special needs, has now broken up and gotten back together with him at least six times.  Each time he shrugs and says "it won't happen again."  So far, they have had lunch together at school and hugged; they also hang out after lunch occasionally.  The "buddy" get togethers have occurred exactly 3 times in 10 years -- because parents made it happen.
    • The volunteering is successful because the librarian, who also has a child with special needs, has known our son for 8 years and is willing to accommodate his particular skills and challenges.  The kittens are really his sister's volunteer focus, though he enjoys playing with them.  The junior college offers a special program for kids with moderate disabilities.

     Do I have a son to be proud of?  Absolutely!  But I'm hoping this illustration may help some folks recognize that, when it comes to autism, there's often more to the story than meets the eye!

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