In her book, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, Wendy Mogel mentions a Hasidic tradition, in which a person carries in each pocket a piece of paper; one says, “The world was created for me,” and the other says, “I am but a speck of dust.” For some reason, I find comfort in this, even though I am not Jewish. We are all special, but not all that special.
Being a parent of a child with social learning challenges is in some ways a different experience, but it is also one of many possible journeys of parenting. Parenting an exceptional kid means that sometimes you are witness to a breathtaking, shimmering, transcendent moment that a parent of a typical kid might never have reason to notice. Sometimes it means you need to stretch and grow to be your better self or develop a more specialized parenting toolkit. Sometimes it’s hard and you feel under-equipped. And sometimes you just need to be a regular old mom or dad and put things in perspective. It’s not so easy to know which mode to be in.
My husband and I have one child who is typically developing, and another child who is autistic. As both of them move through the teen years, I find myself saying less and less in public about their specific challenges and successes, personalities and preferences. I’m delighted with both of them, I enjoy both of them immensely, and parenting them has taught me most of the important things I have learned as an adult.
I’m not ashamed of their struggles any more than I take personal pride in their accomplishments. And anyone who knows me can tell you that I am not secretive. But they have the right to tell their own stories when and how it suits them, so my challenge now is to articulate what I want to share with others without compromising their privacy. You may notice my use of non-specific pronouns. I only have two children and I don’t want to make it obvious which one I’m talking about. Fortunately, they are reliably assertive and clear about what’s OK to share and what is not, so be assured that anything you read here is done with their permission.
My autistic child once told me that when they grow up, they would have only a little bit of autism left. It was, of course, a test. I surprised myself a little when I replied that it didn’t matter how autistic they are now or is when they grow up; I just want my kids to be able to have a life that is satisfying, whatever that means to them. I was relieved as the words were coming out to find that I meant it. As I finished, I could see from the look on my child’s face that I had passed the test.
Over time, and with increasing attention to the perspectives of autistic adults I’ve come to know well, I’ve come to understand and accept that autistic people learn and communicate throughout their lives, sometimes about like non-autistic people do, and sometimes in remarkably interesting and divergent ways. Autistic people can and do learn social concepts and expectations throughout their lives, but then, so does everyone else.
Accordingly, most of my work has come to revolve around educating parents, teachers, and other professionals who are caring for, raising, and/or supporting and teaching kids on the autism spectrum. The social challenges that come with autism are not all that mysterious or special. Social learning is just learning. For some people, it may need to be taught in a different way, like reading may need to be taught differently to a dyslexic student. But it is teachable and learnable. Even more importantly, we can teach social in a supportive, digestible way that both feels and actually is relevant and respectful to the autistic individual. And we can learn a lot along the way that can make us better at teaching neurotypical students in more relevant and respectful ways.
Even the ways in which we support and encourage social learning in students on the autism spectrum are kind of special … but not that special.