I wear a set of keys on a chain around my neck. I don’t know what, exactly, these keys unlock, but I wear them in hope, and in memory.
After my grandmother passed away years ago, my grandfather invited the women of the family to view her jewelry box and select any items that we would like to have. Grief-stricken though he was, he remembered (and honored) his beloved’s wish that her items be shared with the family.
At first, the jewelry seemed to consist entirely of gold pieces; I only wear silver. But then, a glimmering caught my eye, a flash of silver from the back of a drawer. Instinctively, I reached in, pulling out a small pair of silver keys. As I held them in my hand, I was intrigued by the mystery of what they might unlock, and the symbolism I saw within them. No one could tell me what they unlocked, but I knew what they represented: a perfect match, as my grandparents had been. Instead of questioning my fascination, I put them on a chain, forming a necklace that I’d wear every day for years.
In college, I wore them in hopes that I, too, might find my ‘perfect match’. Now, I wear them along with my wedding rings, as a statement of a dream realized. They make me think of my grandparents, who have both since passed away. I remember how my grandparents accepted and loved my brother Willie, who has autism.
My grandparents were born in a time when many people with special needs were institutionalized and shut away from the world. (At least one family member from my grandparents’ generation openly questioned my parents as to why they hadn’t institutionalized Willie.) Yet my grandparents chose to open their hearts and welcome my brother into our family. Yes, they had to work through fear and face down societal prejudice to do so. But what I’ll always remember is the look my grandfather would get whenever he’d talk about my brother. Pride, compassion, and love would fill every line on his face.
Willie was – is – an integral part of our family. He has different needs, a different diet, and a different communication style. In some ways, Willie’s need for support makes him vulnerable. But his strengths are what my grandparents chose to celebrate. For example, whenever we’d gather as a family for Thanksgiving or Christmas or Easter, my parents and grandparents would turn to Willie, inviting him to ask the blessing. And whenever Willie prays, I think of how beautiful it is to be led by him.
I am hoping against hope that we will continue to ‘unlock the mystery’ of autism, that we will continue to celebrate and empower individuals on the autism spectrum. Moreover, I hope that we will allow ourselves to be changed – to let our relationships with people on the autism spectrum transform our thinking. As a society, we have made great steps forward when it comes to inclusion and autism. Even so, we have a long way to travel on the road of acceptance.
Our work is not yet finished – not while family members still suggest the isolation and exclusion of institutions as a viable option. Not while school systems and Medicaid programs cut wages, programs, and benefits for individuals, teachers, and caregivers. Not while people with autism lack opportunities for meaningful work. Medical and technological advances move us closer to unlocking the mysteries of autism, but will our hearts and minds also swing open to welcome people with special needs?
Many people have asked me about the keys I wear; they sense a story behind the necklace. And whenever I share that story – the story of two people who loved each other and accepted their grandson – I think about how, in making these everyday choices, my grandparents changed the world.
I’ll be wearing my keys this April, in honor of Autism Awareness Month. It may seem a simple thing, but there is significance in it. The keys call to mind both a sobering truth and an inspiring challenge: the world only changes one person at a time.
About the Author
Caroline McGraw is a would-be childhood paleontologist turned storyteller, digging for treasure in people with autism & intellectual disabilities (& empowering caregivers to do the same). Her younger brother, Willie, has autism, and she writes about finding meaning in your most challenging relationships at A Wish Come Clear. Her first book, Your Creed of Care: How To Dig For Treasure In People (Without Getting Buried Alive) is a guide for caregivers, free to all who elect to receive posts via email at: http://awishcomeclear.com