Other than my short story, the only thing I’ve written about autism in the sixteen years since Benjamin was diagnosed was this editorial. I wrote it five years ago, when Benjamin was almost fourteen, during Autism Awareness Month. It was never published either, so almost no one has read it. (It provides a couple of links to sites where you can learn more about autism, if you’re interested. I hope you are).
It occurs to me that, quite likely, most of you reading this are already teaching your children the values I speak of, so perhaps I’m just preaching to the choir here. But I feel such a need to shout this to the rooftops, to make my voice heard, because it seem to me that too many parents still aren’t teaching their children how to see rightly and perhaps aren’t seeing rightly themselves.
So, just for the chance that there might be one person out there reading this that might be moved to think and contemplate change, here’s my piece, written in April of 2003:
How to See Rightly
Down East, where I grew up, was a great place to be a shy and quiet person. My Daddy pastored small churches near Wallace and Warsaw, and most of the people I knew and loved there were country people who measured their words and weighed yours and gave you time to reveal yourself. Which, of course, is a good thing if you’re like me—reserved and slow to speak, but generally worth knowing.
Now it seems that people seek instant everything—instant food, instant mail, instant answers, and instant appraisal of a person’s worth and value. I’ve found that shyness and quietness are often equated with dullness, or even stupidity. In general, people give you about two minutes to reveal yourself, which means that those of us who are slow thinkers and talkers are often dismissed as unworthy of further conversation. Meanwhile, the glib, clever fast talkers seem to thrive (I call it the “game show-host syndrome”), whereas among the folks I grew up with down east, they might be regarded with mistrust and suspicion. Now, it seems to me, image is everything and substance means little. I believe this is a dangerous thing.
It is dangerous when people are elected or promoted to a position where the public good is at stake, in part because they have a polished, blow-dried appearance or can repeat over and over a phrase like “I believe in good American values!” It is also dangerous when people are rejected because of the way they dress, their skin color, their sexual orientation, their bank accounts, or how clever they are with a quip. But it is heartbreaking when your own child is rejected because they are different.
If you asked me to describe my 14-year-old son, I might first mention this: he is autistic. (Autism is a brain dysfunction which affects language and communication, social functioning, and, often, intellectual development). Yes, I might tell you that, but for one reason only—so you might look beyond that, into his heart and soul. Autism does not define him.
I often quote a favorite phrase to my children from The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. The fox tells the Little Prince a secret: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” If you were to look at my son with your eyes only, you might see a boy who sometimes speaks too loud, with unusual cadence and phrasing; who might talk obsessively about one subject; or who often doesn’t converse at all. You might dismiss him, as some classmates have, as rather odd. But that is his autism. If you looked beyond that, if you could “see rightly” with your heart, you would see a boy who is kind, spiritual, creative, and highly intelligent, with a wonderful sense of humor. He is an old soul, who often surprises me with his perceptive observations. He recently asked me, “Did you ever think about this? When we are in pursuit of answers, they evade us. When we are evading answers, they pursue us.” He has taught me so much and is definitely worth knowing, but people often don’t give him a second chance.
April is National Autism Awareness Month, and I write, in part, to draw attention to autism. (To learn more, go to www.autismsociety-nc.org or www.teacch.com [where Benjamin was diagnosed]). But I also hope to make people consider the importance of looking beyond the immediate, of seeing past the image. If we are to teach our children well, we must teach them to “see rightly.” We must help them learn that every soul has worth and value and that we must listen well to hear each soul singing. We must teach them to see with their heart, to look beyond appearance and image; beyond the immediate and obvious; beyond sound bites and slick talk; beyond skin color, nationality, religion, or political affiliation. We must teach them to see what is truly essential and honest and pure and good and true. It is one simple step towards compassion and understanding. In listening well and seeing rightly and teaching our children to do so, we can help to make the world a better place for all.