One Moment in Time
As the school year draws to a close for our young people, reflection on things past comes to mind. I had the good fortune to attend three different awards ceremonies for high school students in recent weeks—two at the school where I teach, and one at the school from which my son will be graduating this week. In years past, attendance at ceremonies such as these has been known to leave my son feeling again and again as though he was never going to “find his place.” It was perpetually difficult for him to acknowledge how far he had come when it seemed to him (and yes, sometimes to me too) that he was always not-quite good enough to reach that pinnacle of success we have probably all aspired to at one point or another. Factor in the black-and-white, dualistic thinking that I think is par for the course with the autism spectrum, and we have a perfect storm for self-loathing in the making. Coupled with the anxiety that comes from end-of-school year transition for my guy and others in similar circumstances, awards ceremonies threaten to derail a year’s worth of self-esteem building in one fell swoop.
So I am thrilled to report that each of the three awards ceremonies I attended in the last few weeks ended with smiles, not tears … well, I cried, but that doesn’t count! My little boy received, among other amazing recognitions, a citation from one of our newly-elected state representatives. He was one of two students in his class of over 600 to earn this. And the smile on his face as he jogged up on stage and had that moment in the spotlight made up for so many years of disappointments, of feeling not-quite-good enough. I know all too well how easily the autism spectrum can work against a young person, having been that young person myself a certain number of years ago. It does not take too much of a leap to go from feeling invisible to feeling like a failure. When I look then at the students we honored recently at my school, I can’t help but think of all of the years many, if not most, of them spent in situations where they were either feeling invisible or wishing they were invisible. That place of wanting to be accepted as a part of the world in which we’re living, and then not understanding why something that seems so simple for those around us is so painfully impossible to attain. It becomes easier to withdraw, to stop caring, to stop looking for the approval and acceptance that others appear to have acquired with ease. And that withdrawal looks to be our choice, not unexpected for individuals with autism, right? It’s a vicious circle. This is one of the things that I find most amazing about the environment where I am building my career now. The fact that these young people have the chance to find success in a safe environment, then use those achievements both big and small as a scaffolding to greater achievements and bolstered self-esteem, is why I look forward to going to work every morning. I have to admit, I was downright scared walking into my son’s senior awards assembly. I knew he was receiving some recognition, and he knew that as well. God help me, I was scared that he was going to be getting recognized for extracurricular activities, which are valuable experiences but which I knew would leave him with that same empty feeling with which he’s walked away from more than his share of assemblies. I prepared myself for what I would say to him if he received accolades for something that a hundred other students were getting too (and that has happened). With my anxiety as high as it was, I could only imagine where his was at as the awards got underway. But with the honors he received my joy and relief was palpable. For that moment in time, he had the opportunity to see the gifts which come with AS, rather than the struggles that live barely beneath the surface, waiting to pounce without warning. He had found his place.