Do you ever wonder why things turn out the way they do? I do. Every so often, I ask myself why an event in my life occurred, if maybe it had some sort of purpose or reason. I realize that, in the larger scheme of things, I can never really know why events happen or if there is some sort of grand plan for us all. I do believe, though, that each event offers us a brand new chance to change ourselves and our lives, whether the change is slight or sweeping. Even if we can’t know whether there is some great cosmic reason for the workings of the world, we can still give events meaning with what we do with them.
When I was diagnosed as autistic (and also severely mentally retarded, with a below-thirty IQ), my parents were given ample opportunity to treat the event as a tragedy. The whole world saw autism as hopeless and encouraged my parents to see it that way too. Sometimes it dawns on me how close I came to spending my life encapsulated inside my own head, lacking the tools to interact with the rest of the world. My autism could have been just another event without meaning or explanation.
What turned it around was not a string of events, but rather a wildly different and unheard of perspective: Refusing to accept the age-old view of autism as a terrible catastrophe, my parents came up with the radical idea that my autism was a chance – a great opportunity, in fact – to try to reach a child lost behind a thick, hazy cloud. It was a chance to make greatness out of something commonly viewed as unquestionably sad and tragic. This perspective, combined with a passionate relentlessness on the part of my parents, enabled me to undergo a spectacular metamorphosis and emerge from the shell of my autism without a trace of my former condition.
When I think about what my parents did with my autism, I see what a tremendous role we all play in each event that confronts us. It was not my recovery that made the event of my autism amazing and meaningful (though, needless to say, I’m very happy with the outcome); it was my parents’ open-minded attitude in the face of my condition and their desire to find meaning in it regardless of how I turned out in the end. You don’t have to “cure” your special child in order for his or her specialness to have meaning and value. The value lies not in “results” but in how you treat your situation and your child.
The question of what is and is not possible has forever been bouncing around in my head. I have definitely had a few times in my life when I chose not to bother attempting to accomplish something because I thought, “That’s impossible.” At other times, I catch myself thinking this way and realize that it is precisely this type of thinking that could have landed me in an institution for the rest of my life. If there is one thing my life has taught me, it is that anything is possible. I don’t mean this idea in the superficial way it is often used. I mean to say that nothing is beyond our reach if we honestly believe that it is within our power to reach it. I’ve found that I, rather than any external situation, am my own biggest limiter.
One line that parents of special children hear more than anyone else is the “that’s impossible” line. The “experts” showered my parents with prognoses like “hopeless”, “irreversible”, “unreachable” and “incurable”. All my parents had to do was believe these “experts” (not a difficult task, since these doctors had plenty of evidence to back their opinions), and my journey would have been over. Instead, my parents defied the professionals, disbelieved their prognoses, and grabbed hold of the belief that they could at least try to do the impossible, reach the unreachable, cure the incurable.
“But your son has a devastating, lifelong condition. He can never come out of it” the doctors scolded.
“So what?” my parents would reply. “We’re going to try, anyway, and see what happens.”
The word expert is the misnomer of the century. The pessimistic outlook that the “experts” show many parents need not be taken seriously. Whatever you’ve been told about the severity of your child’s condition, don’t buy it. You and your child can do a whole lot more than any “expert” could possibly know. No matter how much evidence a doctor can show you, it will never be enough to prove that something is impossible. You want to know something? Evidence is a sham. It can always be defied or demolished. If you really believe in evidence, use it to prove the possible instead of the impossible. (I’m on the debating team at my college, and I’ve seen how evidence can be used to back up either side of an issue.)
Many, especially the “experts,” might claim that I am advocating “false hope.” “False hope”? What do they mean by “false hope”? How in the world can anyone put these two words together? When I think about my successful academic career, my fierce tennis matches, my love of Stephen King novels., the fantasy and science fiction short stories I’ve written, my admittance to the university of my choice, my best friends, my girlfriend, and my complete and ecstatic involvement with life, it occurs to me that each and every one of these is the product of “false hope.” Nothing can ever be bad or wrong about hope. Not ever. I advocate giving yourself and those around you as large a dose of it as possible.
So, I bet you’re wondering what this product of “false hope” is doing with his life lately. Well, I’m enjoying college (I’m in my sophomore year) more than any other period of my life. I’m having a thoroughly terrific time choosing my own courses, living away from home, eating school food (yum!). I take courses like philosophy, political science, theater arts, and biology. I took calculus during my freshman year. Definitely not my calling. In addition to enjoying the social and academic scenes at college, I’m also on the debating team, I take ballroom dancing, I’m in a coed fraternity, and I’m in a number of political groups. I recently cast my first presidential vote after working for my candidate’s campaign. (I won’t say who I voted for, but you can probably guess.)
Here are the answers (and only the answers) to the questions I get asked most often:
- No, I can’t stand “Beverly Hills 90210.”
- Yeah, I’m an excellent driver.
- Actually, I’m majoring in biomedical ethics. Oh, my career after college? I haven’t the foggiest clue.
- No, I only spin plates during really boring physics lectures.
- Sorry, I’m busy this Friday night.
Speaking of questions and answers, I have talked with parents of special children from many different countries and throughout the US, and I’ve had the chance to answer scores of their questions and ask some questions of my own, as well. They all want the best for their child; they all have a strong desire to help their child in any way they can. Many of these families also see their own or their child’s situation as horrific. In addition, they want to be “realistic” and not pretend that their child’s situation or potential is better than it actually is. It makes perfect sense to me that parents would think this way, but there are other ways of looking at things that might be more productive as well as more fun.
Personally, I see autistic children as possessing a unique talent and ability, not a deficiency. When this talent and ability are embraced instead of viewed with horror, some amazing things can happen. Kids can make leaps people never thought possible.
As for being realistic, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Very often, I wonder how I can be realistic and optimistic at the same time. How can I have boundless hope and aspirations and still keep a down-to-earth perspective on things? Well, many times I can’t. Sometimes I choose realism, and when I do, I can always be sure that nothing that happens will exceed my expectations. But when I choose limitless optimism, I don’t put any ceilings on my dreams and goals, and, as a result, sometimes I get more and do more than I ever could have accomplished by being realistic. The telephone, the automobile, the polio vaccine – the people who brought these things into being were extremely unrealistic. Realism only preserves the status quo. Nothing was ever accomplished by a realist. Every great discovery and achievement in history is the fault of unrealistic people. My parents’ lack of realism is what got me to the place I am now. Consequently, I try never to tell anyone around me to be realistic.
Sometimes, when I think about the continuing savage violence around the world and the pervasive racism in America, I have a hard time being optimistic. Plastered all over my wall in my dorm room are pictures of Bobby Kennedy, my favorite person in history. War and racism were also major concerns for him, but he never let the state of the world bring him down. So when I think of the things I want to be different in the world and I think about being unrealistic and I think about hope, I try to keep a quote of Bobby Kennedy’s tucked in the back of my mind: “Some see the world as it is and say, ‘Why?’ I see the world as it could be and say, ‘Why not?'” You can always say, “Why not?” when you’re told you can’t accomplish something. You can always say, “So what?” when evidence is presented against your dreams. You can always say, “It’s possible” when you have a different vision for your child. Your potential is limitless, so don’t give up. You have more greatness than you might think.