April is National Autism Awareness Month, and I had planned to write a new post about autism today. But I realized that nothing I could write says more about the experience of being autistic than the essay my son Benjamin wrote when he was in high school, which I featured in this post last year. I hope you don’t mind a reprise—I think some things are worth repeating. (If you’d care to read more about our experience with autism, click on “Autism” under “Categories” in my sidebar.) And to learn more about autism in general, a good source is TEACCH in Chapel Hill, NC, where Benjamin was diagnosed.
(All words in italics are the work of Benjamin)
Last year, my son Benjamin entered an essay contest for high school seniors through Newsweek magazine. The prize was scholarship money for college. He didn’t win, but, really, that was irrelevant. What was truly important in his essay, “Like One of You,” was the very first line.
“To whom it may concern in the world: I’ve been in the closet for all these years, so to speak.”
Such a simple sentence—but the beginning of a profound transformation. That first line was his first step out of the closet and into the light. For the first time, Benjamin was able to see what we have seen from the time he was born—what a precious and wondrous child of God he is. And for the first time, Benjamin was able to finally love himself the way we love him—for who he is.
Benjamin told the world that he is autistic.
“Yes, I’m autistic. A lot of people, when they hear “autism,” picture Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man with his supernatural mathematical ability. I am not a human calculator, nor can I tell you what day of the week January 3, 1971 was. Although autism affects people in different ways and varies in severity, most autistic people I have known are just regular human beings who want what everyone else wants—to be loved and accepted for who they are.”
It broke my heart when Benjamin used to beg me not to tell anyone about his autism. But even more heartbreaking, almost unbearably so, was how viciously and relentlessly he was teased and bullied in elementary school. It was a daily assault on his spirit and part of the reason he felt a sense of shame for who he was. His worst year was fourth grade. Most afternoons after school that year were spent trying to undo the damage done to his soul that day, to bind up the wounds to his heart. I’d sit and talk with him sometimes for hours. But I never knew how to answer when he asked me why people are so cruel. When I told his teacher what was happening, she dismissed it with a wave of her hand, “Oh, bullying’s just a part of growing up.” Benjamin, at the age of ten, told me that he wished he could die. He’d say that he wished God would take him home to heaven because the world was too hard a place for him to live.
“It’s funny how bullies have a built-in radar for people who are different. Between them and kids who were simply uneducated about autism, my elementary experience was pretty miserable. Our family moved three times in elementary school alone to find the best place for me. My social awkwardness always attracted a constant stream of derision. It just took me a little longer to figure out that, no, not everyone wanted a hug all of the time (I later discovered that’s what relationships are for) and why some people could say something funny and get away with it while I would get in trouble. Kids saw this vulnerability and seized on it. I can’t tell you how many times I would get into trouble because the other kids would tell me to make a certain vulgar gesture or joke. In my naivety, I would do it in front of everyone, thinking that their laughs would finally gain me some sort of hard-earned popularity. But it didn’t, especially with teachers. Some teachers viewed me as a troublemaker and would chastise me. In fact, the only “friends” I made in elementary school were bullies looking for easy targets to torment.”
I’m writing about Benjamin now because he told me I could. Not only has he come to love and accept himself for who he is, but he wants the world to know about autism. April is National Autism Awareness Month, so I’m going to be writing about Benjamin and autism on my blog for a little while. But for now, I’ll let him speak again. After all, he does it so very well. I’ve been praying all these years that Benjamin might someday be able to sing loudly and proudly the song of himself. It’s a beautiful song. And so he does. Praise be.
“What we really need right now is a joint effort of teachers, parents, and students to learn and to teach others understanding and acceptance of those who are different….Parents of non-autistic children need to help their children to better understand differences in others and to accept them. Teachers should realize that what comes naturally to most people has to be learned by autistic people—we aren’t trying to cause trouble. And students need to think about how the taunts and insults that they casually toss off cut deep into our hearts. Just because someone isn’t a born sophisticate doesn’t mean that they are insulated from normal feelings. We’re really just one of you.”