“Compare Emma to Emma. Don’t ever compare her to another child.” This was said to me years ago by someone whose name and face elude me. I was reminded of their suggestion this morning as I rode the subway to my studio and read the chapter by Lucy Blackman from Douglas Biklen’s terrific, must-read book, Autism and the Myth of the Person Alone – “That is best illustrated by asking each reader to describe the cultural or emotional characteristics of their own sex, whether man or woman, without any reference to the opposite, not even by implication, as if you were completely unaware that there is another set of options available.”
As the subway careened along beneath the streets of Manhattan, I reflected on this idea of not comparing Emma to anyone else or even to an abstract idea of anyone else. What if I didn’t compare her at all? “…without any reference to the opposite, not even by implication…” What if I saw Emma purely as Emma? “..as if you were completely unaware that there is another set of options available.” What if I pushed out of my mind all those evaluations, the reams of “reports” the specialist’s conclusions, the pages and pages of “information” gathered over the last eight years? What if all of it, every last word was meaningless? What if I emptied our file cabinet of all that and started anew?
We live in a culture of comparing. We look to our neighbor and envy their garden or, as happens in Manhattan, how many square feet their apartment is. We salivate over other’s imagined life, we covet that which we do not have and may never have, we pore over the lugubrious details of fallen celebrities and the train wreck of their lives, we gawk at the photos of dimpled hips, bellies, thighs occupying pages upon pages in magazines we may never purchase while in line at the supermarket, relieved that we are not the only ones whose bodies are not the chiseled, polished, perfection obtained through that impossible combination of genetics and a willingness to give over hours of our lives to a gym. Yet we still feel embarrassment and shame when we go to the beach and uncover ourselves.
I spent a great many years perfecting just this sort of thinking. I spent far too many years feeling alternately “less than” and “better than”. Oddly there was equal measure of shame in both and yet I couldn’t figure out how to extricate myself. It was one or the other, that sticky, messy area between those two points was much harder to occupy. But it is that area I long to find my place in. It is exactly that middle ground I now find myself reaching for. “…as if you were completely unaware that there is another set of options available.” That is what I strive for, when I think about and interact with Emma, but also in every area of my life.
“Compare and despair” is something I have heard people say. I can illustrate this saying with countless examples from my life and yet, even now, knowing what I know, the temptation to compare is seductive. How does it serve me? This is the question I know to ask. And I have the answer to this. It doesn’t, but it is a habit. Thankfully I am learning to stop myself when I catch myself comparing. What I am coming to realize is, comparing is my knee jerk response to stress. It is where I go when I’m tired. It’s my default setting for when I’m overwhelmed, hungry, sad or just confused. Repetition is how we acquire skill. Repetition is how we undo learned behavior. When I compare Emma to Emma I see tremendous progress, I see possibilities, I see limitlessness, I see the beauty in the small steps taken, I see a kind of poetry in her growth. Challenge becomes subjective, goals are no longer solid lines but instead shimmery bands of light, something one moves in and out of, no longer a mountain to climb, but rather a place to visit and then move on.
How do I stop comparing my child? By seeing her through a lens of wonder and curiosity. When I am able to accomplish this, I have found true bliss. A blissfulness Emma innately occupies and patiently awaits me.
Emma running through sprinklers outside the Museum of Natural History
Architectural beauty – a building in Manhattan
- Sometimes it Takes Someone Else to Believe (emmashopebook.com)
- It’s My Birthday and I’ll Laugh if I Want To (emmashopebook.com)
- Autism, Assumptions and Perpetuating Misperceptions (emmashopebook.com)