My heroes and heroines aren’t movie stars, TV personalities, athletes, or musicians—they’re moms and dads who are home caring for children with autism, Asperger’s syndrome or other special needs. The heroic parents I’m talking about are there for their kids, day in and day out, loving them, providing for them, assuring them, teaching them, giving them warmth in a cold world. While movie stars are scratching desperately for peer approval, TV personalities are worrying about Neilson ratings, musicians are hoping for a gold or platinum record, and athletes are dedicating long hours to physical perfection, my heroes and heroines are putting aside personal needs and goals and are directing their energies toward helping the most helpless in their lives.
A New Attitude
Unruly children no longer bother me. Why? I don’t have all the facts. I remember too well the stares and caustic comments from uninformed onlookers who had no idea that what they were criticizing was not a bad little boy, but a boy with autism who could not quite understand his place in the world. “…Can’t you control him?” “Well, no, not always, for you see he has autism.” Blank stares from those who had never heard the word and who wouldn’t have softened their indignation had they understood.
A Visit to McDonalds
My little guy blocked one of the tunnels because he didn’t know what to do. The concept of moving along was new to him. Impatient parents shouted scathing remarks to him and to me. I tried to explain, but they wouldn’t listen. All they knew was that their children were delayed somewhat in their trips through the tunnels.“But he’s a good boy,” I said. “He doesn’t get it yet—but he will. He has autism. It was only a month ago that he answered his first question. Please be patient with him.”
A big burly construction worker joined his wife and together they rejected my words. “You’re just making excuses for him. Get him out of here. He’s upsetting our kids.”
“No buts, get him out and take him home.”
“He loves it here.”
“The playscape is for regular kids.”
“He is a regular kid.”
“No, he’s not.”
“Well, he wants to be a regular kid.”
Michael and His Wheelchair
His little body was so twisted he couldn’t raise his head, so his teacher and classmates lifted his wheelchair and locked it in place on top of a large rectangular table with the other children seated around him looking up while he looked down. It was a grand arrangement. Michael was the center of attention and he knew it. And he could participate because he was now able to observe all that was going on without raising his head. My little guy with autism was thrilled for Michael. Michael was now happy. He wasn’t alone anymore, staring at the floor. And the other kids (typical and untypical) were delighted as well. They loved Michael.
Michael’s Mother and the Food Stamps
Not long after the wheelchair incident, I ran into Michael and his mother at the supermarket. My boy with autism went immediately to stand by his friend. Neither said much, but it was clear they were delighted to be in each other’s company. I visited with Michael’s mom for a bit and she introduced me to her second child, a toddler showing unmistakable signs of autism—signs I knew only too well. When it came time for her to pay, she did so with a food stamp card. My heart sank—not because I have anything against food stamps. Many need them and in fact couldn’t survive without them. But I was overwhelmed by an inescapable truth. Michael’s mom not only had two special-needs children, but she was essentially broke. And yet as we parted, her smile was bright and her jaw was set in determination—determination to live her life for her children—no matter what their imperfections.
Heroes and Heroines
Not self-indulgent, self-absorbed celebrities, but steady, loving, uncomplaining moms and dads who concentrate on the needs of their handicapped kids, and who (late at night) remember their own dreams and hopes.