In her book, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, Wendy Mogel mentions a Hasidic tradition, in which a person carries in each pocket a piece of paper; one says, “The world was created for me,” and the other says, “I am but a speck of dust.” For some reason, I find comfort in this. We are all special, but not all that special.
Being a parent of a neurodivergent child is in some ways a different experience, but it is also one of many possible journeys of parenting. Parenting an exceptional kid means that sometimes you are witness to a breathtaking, shimmering, transcendent moment that a parent of a typical kid might never have reason to notice. Sometimes it means you need to stretch and grow to be your better self or develop a more specialized parenting toolkit. Sometimes it’s hard and you feel under-equipped. And sometimes you just need to be a regular old mom or dad and put things in perspective. It’s not so easy to know which mode to be in because the extraordinary and the ordinary aspects of it are so entwined.
My husband and I have one child who is typically developing, and another child who is on the autism spectrum. As they move through the teen and tween years, I find myself sharing less and less about their challenges and successes, personalities and preferences. I’m delighted with both of them, and parenting them has taught me most of the important things I have learned as an adult. I’m not ashamed of their struggles any more than I take too much credit for their accomplishments. And anyone who knows me can tell you that I am not secretive. But they have the right to tell their own stories when and how it suits them. So my challenge is to articulate what I know to be helpful for other parents without compromising anyone’s privacy. Fortunately, these people I live with are reliably assertive and clear about what’s OK to share and what is not, so be assured that anything you read here is done with their permission.
My son once told me that when he grows up, he thought he would have only a little bit of autism left. It was, of course, a test. I surprised myself a little when I replied that it didn’t matter how autistic he is now or is when he grows up; I just want him to be able to have a life that is satisfying, whatever that means to him. I was relieved as the words were coming out to find that I meant it. I’ve come a long way.
Over time, and with increasing attention to the perspectives of autistic adults I’ve come to know well, I’ve come to understand and accept that autistic people do not become non-autistic people. I’ve come to view neurodiversity as a valid facet of cultural identity, like race, gender, religion, sexuality, socioeconomics, ethnicity and so forth. Autistic people learn and communicate throughout their lives, sometimes like non-autistic people do, and sometimes in remarkably interesting and divergent ways. Autistic people can and do learn social concepts and develop their own social competence throughout their lives, but then, so does everyone else.
Accordingly, most of my work in social learning has come to revolve around educating parents, teachers, and other professionals who are caring for, raising, supporting and teaching kids on the autism spectrum or are otherwise neurodivergent. The social challenges that come with autism are not all that mysterious or special. And they’re not that different from the social challenges that often accompany ADHD, learning disabilities, and other neurodevelopmental variations — so feel free to use anything you read here to your parenting and work with any kind of kid whatsoever.
Social learning is just learning. For some people, it may need to be taught in a different way, like reading may need to be taught differently to a dyslexic student. For some people, the environment needs to be changed or their sensory needs must be met before social learning can take root. But the art of social connection and navigation is teachable and learnable. Even more importantly, we can teach social — to anyone who is a willing learner — in a supportive, digestible way that both feels and actually is relevant and respectful. And we can learn a lot along the way that can make us better people.