“I have four grandchildren, and the youngest is Emma. She is a beautiful blond with blue eyes and a sparkling smile, she skis like a pro, she swims, she climbs the climbing wall at the rec center, she balances on the back of the sofa (while her granma shudders in fear that she might fall), she sings with near perfect pitch, and she is autistic. When I was growing up such children would have been hidden away. Anyone who encountered them would have avoided them, other children would have teased them, or worse still, abused them.
My husband spent the last ten years of his life in a wheelchair. He told me that in social gatherings people avoided him because they didn’t know what to say to someone who was so obviously disabled. Today men and women in wheelchairs compete at the Olympics. They race on prosthetic limbs, those who are blind ski with Challenge Aspen. I have a friend, one of the founders of Challenge Aspen, who skis in a specially designed chair. She tells me that she skis better now in that chair than she did eighteen years ago when she had full use of her limbs.
Scientific research, skilled therapists and loving families have helped all these people achieve a potential that would have been denied them eighty years ago when I was born. These people are actually lucky because their disabilities are visible, and so scientists and skilled therapists have been funded with the means to investigate all avenues that might lead to improving their lives.
Autism is not visible, but inside of Emma there is also a person yearning to be understood, to be able to communicate, to tell us of her fears, her frustrations, her desires. She too wants to be treated with understanding and compassion.
In the family room we have a stage with a curtain. Emma loves to draw back the curtain and sing and, as her father says, strut her stuff as if to an enormous audience. One day she too will reach her potential. One day she will step down from that stage, her inner person will emerge, and she will still sing like an angel, but also she will speak with clarity, she will laugh with us, play games with other children and be able to step off into the future with confidence.
Such is our hope.
But even if none of that turns out exactly as we might wish, one thing is certain, wherever she goes, however she behaves, she will walk in beauty, surrounded with love.”
To see a survey that my mother participated in on the effects of autistic grandchildren and their grandparents, go to: http://www.iancommunity.org/cs/ian_research_reports/ian_research_report_apr_2010