This I Believe

Lisa - Elkins Park, Pennsylvania
Entered on December 19, 2006
Age Group: 30 - 50

I was taught to be practical. Weigh the costs, measure the outcomes, make a choice. Someone wins, someone loses. In the best of all worlds, you’re the winner. If life deals you lemons, shove a slice of chocolate cake under your jacket, and act nonchalant.

This form of enlightened self interest is surprisingly effective, and it formed a major portion of my worldview.

Until Tommy.

Tommy is our son. Today, at ten, he’s handsome and charming. He plays a mean clarinet. And he’s autistic. We’re lucky: Tom is only mildly autistic, which means he’s able to talk and laugh, read and write, and take an active role in most aspects of daily life. But Tom has yet to make a friend. He has a tough time focusing. And he’ll never get away with that slice of cake — he’s just too honest.

In my search for new ways to think about parenting a child with autism, I read, learned and talked about autism an awful lot. Perhaps too much. Talk to parents of children with autism — especially moms — and you’ll hear a lot of anxiety, and a good dose of guilt. Did I somehow cause this problem? Will the most recent choice of therapists make a different? Did I push the school district hard enough for the best possible program? What if never really makes a friend? What if she can’t learn to read? What if…??

Like every other special needs mom, I found the anxiety a little overwhelming. I found the guilt disabling. And then I started to look for ways to find at least a little nibble of that chocolate cake.

I discovered what Tommy could do — and how he could grow. He turns out to be an extraordinarily good brother to his younger sister, a natural observer, and an impressive musician.

And I took my interest in writing and autism to the web as the Guide to Autism. Every day I learn more about autism — and about people on the autism spectrum. It turns out they’re not lemons after all.

In early December I asked readers to comment on “What You Love Best About the Autistic Person in Your Life.” Within a couple of weeks I had received nearly 100 responses. Some were brief comments, some were full length stories. Some were poems. I’ve even received a few photos. Every single response — and they’re still pouring in — is an expression of appreciation for a person who, from a practical point of view, should have been traded in for chocolate cake.

So this I believe: enlightened self interest can get you a long way. But as it turns out, it can stand between you and what is real. In Tommy’s case — and in those of thousands like him — it turns out that those weren’t lemons at all. They were big slices of rich chocolate cake. Thanks, Tommy.