I had a college professor who, on the first day of class, opened with this homesick-maker.
“The world will tell you they like you just the way you are. But I don’t. I don’t like you the way you are at all. I want you to be much, much better.”
Now, of course, that day was 15 years ago (and THANK GOD, I did become much, much better), but it’s been tucked away in an unopened folder in a dusty corner of my brain until very recently. Recently, it’s been falling out and scattering noisily on the floor. And I keep looking at it, trying to figure out why this is happening. I think I’ve figured it out.
I read a lot of news pieces about autism. Interesting tidbits, moving personal stories, new study reports, etc. And I keep running across a common theme:
“Let them be who they are. It’s not a tragedy; it’s a person.”
For a long time, I thought this must be good advice. And even now, I can’t say it’s entirely wrong (because, duh, he’s not a tragedy and he is, in fact, a person). But there’s a way this can be interpreted that really puts bugs on my skin.
There’s a micro and a macro version of this, and I have yet to determine which one I’m really talking about. It’s more complicated than I expected when I set out to write. But I’ve been working my tail off, forcing William to work, rather than happily spin the wheels on a toy truck–so that he can be much, much better–and it is unequivocally the right thing to do.
It’s not because I want him independent someday so I don’t have to be ashamed of or inconvenienced by having my 30-year old son living with me. Nope, not that. Hey may live with us the rest of our lives no matter what we do.
It’s not because I have a vision for him that he’s not meeting, and I don’t want him mucking up my pretty life. Not that, either. I let “pretty” go oh so long ago. In fact, my life is way better with him in it.
It’s not because I think his current happiness is false and I have to change it. In fact, I have learned worlds about what real joy and real faith is from watching it in him.
He suffers. He suffers from obsessions, unreliable focus and attention, sensory overload, food allergies, and a severe communication deficit, among a thousand other things. I want to find a way to ease his suffering. And where we can’t ease the suffering, I want him to learn how to function under it. Right now, he doesn’t know how. He’s learning, but he’s not there yet. I want him to be better.
He doesn’t know how to be social. Most people understand this to mean that he doesn’t want to be social, in which case, it makes sense that we should just leave autistic people alone, right? Aren’t they happier that way? No! No, William loves people. He loves them so much. But most of the time, he doesn’t have the slightest idea where to start. Would he be happier in the moment to mindlessly flap an old envelope than work all day on learning how to greet a new acquaintance? Sure. But in the end (and that’s what’s really key here), what would he appreciate more: having been allowed to take it easy, or being able to experience the joy of a new friend? I promise you he’d rather have fun with a friend than lay on the couch, but so far, he only knows how to do one of those reliably well. I want him to be better.
He is a child. Take away autism, and what have you got? A kiddo who needs to learn math, respect and empathy, and how to get in the van without running into the street. As a parent, I cannot look at those things through the lens of autism and conclude that he’d be happier if I didn’t teach them. True, his path to learning those things is way rockier than anyone else’s. Who cares? We’ll figure out the how, but the “what” remains: I want him to be better, just like I want my other kids to be better.
He can have his happiness. I like to think I don’t make his life a living hell. I am hopeful to this point. I even feel confident of it when, at the end of the day, he has the ability–and wants!–to kiss me, tell me he loves me, and say goodnight. I call that a win. Like, a really, really big win.
I don’t have any desire to crush my kids, shove them into the good ol’ Oprisko Mold, and pop them out when they graduate. They have their very own personalities and interests and strengths and vices. But I hereby swear that their happiness will not win over my responsibility to parent and help them better themselves. Because if they’re not always becoming better, they cannot ultimately be lastingly, contentedly happy. They will only ever attain happy moments.
I love them too much to let them stay just the way they are.