Lately, I’ve been addressing the many hard and scary aspects of autism,
in particular, safety issues at school and in the community. I now feel the need to shift my attention.
It’s easy to see the world of autism through a glass darkly when there’s so much work
to be done to ensure our children have a warm, safe place to be within society.
On the flip side, I want to let the sun shine on a day of happiness I enjoyed last Friday as my son competed in a regional robotics competition in Seattle. My son has high functioning autism and has always been inordinately shy and self-contained. At the age of fifteen, one of his current IEP goals is “to initiate a conversation with a fellow student once a week." This goal is indicative of just how shy he is.
Chronically underestimated by teachers, I’ve always known his potential, even as they cast dire warnings about his future. Lack of eye contact, emotional withdrawal and struggles with homework are issues, but do not define him as a person.
My son has always gravitated towards science and his interest has been honed to engineering. Just as he entered high school, a new robotics club was founded at his school. Ecstatic at his good fortune, he faithfully attended meeting after meeting. He joyously learned C++ programming, which he excelled at to the point of becoming head of the programmers, only one of two ninth graders to hold a position of leadership within the club. Towards the end of the build season, he put in eight-to-ten hour days on weekends and over vacations, working hundreds of hours on a robot. The social skills and sense of belonging he acquired through this club could never have been delivered through an IEP goal.
Yesterday, the huge event was held in which all the roboteers and their creations assembled to compete against one another. The atmosphere was incredibly festive as teams feverishly worked in their assigned pits to ready for battle.
Looking down upon my son from the balcony, I felt tears of joy well up that my self-professed geek had finally found his people and path forward in life.
The first round of competition ended badly for my son’s team. Their big robot didn’t even place one inner tube on the hook as it was supposed to and their minibots assigned to block the other team seemed quite unequal to the task. Afterward, everyone on my son’s team, including the mentors, looked like their dog had just died. One frantic team member ran off with a big part of the robot in his hands looking as if he was carrying his very heart.
My son’s dad had rallied from his sickbed to come see our son and we had to leave soon after, as he was fading fast. We could only hope the day got better after we left.
When my son got home at eight that evening, he was beside himself with happiness. His team had won a special award for “Best Rookie Team” based upon citizenship, dedication and teamwork. And he brushed off the opening fiasco, proclaiming that they improved throughout the day and had a solid finish.
These are the things that make having a child with autism such a poignant experience. Any parent would be proud of their kid on a day like today, but for a parent of a child with autism, the feelings are amplified one-thousand fold. In moments like these, the weight of the burdens of autism are more than counter-balanced by the blessings.
Help your child find his or her passion. When they are young, give them lots of clay, paint and paper. Turn on the music and let them dance. Take them to museums with hands-on exhibits. Read to them as much as possible. Buy an annual pass to the zoo and the aquarium. See if they like children’s drama. Try not to impose expectations, especially in the area of athletics, as many children on the autism spectrum shun organized sports.
You may never be a little league dad or a soccer mom, but that’s okay. Regardless, let your child reveal himself to you out of the plethora of experiences you provide. Believe me, as I have just experienced, the rewards will be immeasurable and profound.