When you hear there's a 14-year-old working on his master's degree, expecting to eventually earn a PhD in quantum physics, what words come to mind? Genius? Wunderkind?
How about non-starter? Hopeless? No?
That's what people said about Jacob Barnett when he was a little boy. When the now 14-year-old was first diagnosed with autism, his mom was told he'd never amount to anything, that he might not be able to tie his shoes, that he might not be able to read.
I think it's safe to say that's no longer an issue. What is still an issue? The stigma of autism.
Because it's still so misunderstood, the very word "autism" tends to carry with it a lot of baggage. There are myths. Misconceptions. And plain old bad information.
Diagnosis terrifies parents.
It shouldn't have to be that way.
Can having a kid on the autism spectrum be a challenge? Of course.
But when Autism Awareness Month rolled around, I noticed another movement afoot on the web. Parents of kids on the spectrum have been trying to have the month-long celebration re-titled as Autism Acceptance Month. Because to them, autism isn't something to be scared of; it's something about their kids that they celebrate.
One of the most striking comments I saw amidst the flurry of blogging about acceptance came from DeannaMC, blogger behind TravelingMonkeys.org, who was guest posting over at Thinking Person's Guide to Autism. Written two months after a child psychologist confirmed that her daughter, Madeline, was on the spectrum, DeannaMC wrote:
My daughter is autistic, and she is happy. And are we, her family, happy? Incredibly. I have written much about fear and uncertainty here and about panicking over the future. But we see now what incredible shades of privilege and ignorance we had over our eyes: that our neurotypical ideas of happiness were the only standard, and that all else would measure up and be found lacking. That she had to conform to the world to be accepted. These attitudes are not only inappropriate -- they are ableist and wrong.
When I read about Jacob's story -- it's out thanks to his mom's new book, The Spark: a Mother's Story of Nurturing Genius -- those words came flooding back to me. Here's a kid with an IQ higher than Einstein, and people were writing him off because he had autism, because he didn't fit into the cookie cutter mold.
When we have kids, we expect them to be "normal." Whatever that means.
You can't really blame a parent for thinking that way. There are so many possibilities for our kids that to anticipate them all would drive us nuts. So we tend to think inside the box, of boy meets girl, of college, of a little house with a picket fence.
And then things come along. Maybe it's a learning disorder. Or a heart murmur. Or an uncanny ability to bend the ball like Beckham. Or a brain that can rattle off the first 200-some digits of pi (Jacob Barnett can).
Their life might not be the one you pictured from the beginning, but that doesn't mean it will be any less exciting and wonderful. It doesn't mean you let people write your kid off.
You never know what could happen next. That's the beautiful part of being a parent.
Did the autism diagnosis make you afraid? Were people telling you that your kid would never go anywhere with his or her life?
Image via Random House