Guest post by Mary Calhoun Brown
Award-winning Author and Speaker
There Are No Words
Never will I forget the day the doctor looked me in the eye and used the word "autism" to describe my son. To say I felt hopeless and overwhelmed would be an understatement. The words "best-case scenario" were also uttered that day, although my memory of that time is a long tube with "autism" at one end and everything else faded around it.
The pity party was fabulous. You should have been there.
The following day I took one look at the most beautiful child who was ever born and decided to re-define "best case scenario." This is William's story.
Yes, I could go into chapter and verse about the games we played (staring contest, etc..), the methods we used (social stories, etc..) and the times we cried (leaving traditional school for seventh and eighth grades), but instead I'd like to tell you about his spirit.
If William has taught me one thing, it's expect the best.
Within a week of his diagnosis, we decided to tell William he was autistic. We felt he had nothing to be ashamed of, and he has never hidden this fact from anyone. Together we searched for famous people with Asperger's Syndrome (William's brand of autism) and found a list of role models that included Thomas Jefferson, Sir Issac Newton, Albert Einstein and Bill Gates. This is the foundation upon which my son built his self esteem. (Best-case scenario, indeed!)
In both elementary and middle school William gave presentations in front of his peers, disclosing his differences and taking questions. With this he began his love of public speaking. As often as possible, he would stand in front of groups of people and ignore the fact that he has a three-second auditory delay.
In his early teens William was invited to participate in President Eisenhower's People to People Student Ambassador Program. Who were we to hold him back? In seventh grade he visited England and France without us. In eighth grade he visited Italy, Spain, Monaco and southern France. And in ninth grade, we sent our Aspie to Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Germany and Poland.
This summer he is taking classes at Harvard University as part of its Secondary Schools program. He wants to attend Princeton or Brown after high school.
The truth is, everything I've learned about life has come from my autistic child.
Be who you are:
William has never pretended to be something he isn't. He tells people he is different. Why does everyone try to "fit in" when we were born to stand out? And he definitely stands out. At 6'3", handsome, faithful and highly intelligent, William never waivers from the truth of who he is and what he has overcome. He never fails to pray quietly over his meals. He stays late at school. He helps others even when it limits his own free time. He spends his weekends in retreat from other people (aka alone). When he's angry, he shows it. When he's tired, he shows that, too. William lives very happily in his own skin.
Say what you feel:
On his trip to eastern Europe, William traveled with a group of students who were very different from him. We live in beautiful, mountainous West Virginia, and the kids he traveled with were from cities in New Jersey. William reported to us that nearly all of those on his trip were either atheist or Jewish. He decided to share his faith with them. (Yikes, right?)
William's other passion is Lincoln-Douglas debate, and as a result, he has become proficient at arguing his case. With a wealth of knowledge on every topic you can imagine from the escalading Iranian/Israli conflict to compulsory immunizations, William can intelligently offer up the pro's and con's on just about every subject you can think of. Whether we like it or not, William always says what he feels.
Those who mind don't matter:
Ahhh, middle school. The bullying. The teasing. The social rejection and teenage angst. We all thought it was the end of the world. William caught the worst of it.
Middle school kids are always trying to avoid being the "freak," so quite often they point out someone who is "different" or "freaky" to improve their own odds. Naturally, my son (with an IQ one point less than genius) was re-named "Retard." He bore the brunt of the bullying and teasing and wore the "kick me" signs for those less different. Try as we did, including a trip in a hot air balloon with one particularly rotten kid, William never really connected with any of those children. As it turns out, their opinion of him didn't matter then, and it doesn't matter now.
Those who matter don't mind:
High school has been a blessing for William. His incredible focus and photographic memory, coupled with his love for research and public speaking have carved a niche for him on his speech and debate team. His peers respect him for what he can do, and admire his ability to get straight A's, even in Advanced Placement (AP) courses. People in our community can see that William is true to who he is. He tells the truth, even if it's not a popular truth, and that earns my son respect.
When I think back on those early days right after William's diagnosis, I remember wanting to cure him. I wanted him to be "normal." Then I read Temple Grandin's book "Thinking in Pictures," and I decided to love everything about William, including his autism. Without it, he wouldn't be the same.
Once after a tough day I asked my dear child, "If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?" confident I knew the answer. He said, "I'd like to be more organized." I smiled. "Yeah, me too," I said.
So, in the actions of my brilliant, faithful, handsome, autistic son and in the words of the late, great Dr. Seuss, “Be who you are, and say what you feel. Because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.”