Why do things turn out the way they do? Every so often, I ask myself why an event in my life occurred. I realize that, in the larger scheme of things I can never really know why events happen or what the grand plan is for us all. I do believe, though, that each event offers us a brand new chance to change ourselves and our lives, whether the change is slight or sweeping. Even if we can’t always see the great cosmic reason for the workings of the world, we can still give events meaning with what we do with them.
When I was diagnosed with severe autism, with a tested I.Q. below 30, my parents were encouraged at every turn to treat this event as a tragedy. The whole world saw autism as hopeless and encouraged my parents to do the same. Sometimes it dawns on me how different my life could have been. As a totally mute little boy with no ability or desire to interact with the rest of the world, I could have followed the trajectory of many others who, like me, were given a life sentence. Moreover, my parents could have spent their lives mourning the autism-free child they could have had, seeing my autism as just another event without meaning or explanation.
What turned it around was not a string of events, but rather a wildly different and unheard-of perspective. My parents refused to accept the established view of autism as a terrible and meaningless catastrophe. Instead, they decided to see beauty where others saw tragedy, light where others saw darkness, hope where others saw only closed doors. They saw the chance to make greatness out of something universally viewed as unquestionably sad. This perspective, combined with a passionate relentlessness, enabled my parents to help me undergo a spectacular metamorphosis and emerge from the shell of my autism without a trace of my former condition.
When I think about how my parents handled my autism, I see what a tremendous role we all play in each event that confronts us. It was not my recovery that made the event of my autism amazing and meaningful (though, needless to say, I’m pretty happy with the outcome). Rather, it was my parents’ open-minded attitude in the face of my condition and their desire to find meaning in it regardless of how I turned out in the end. You don’t have to “cure” your special child in order for his or her specialness to have meaning and value. The value lies not in the results but in how you treat your situation and your child.
We all must confront the question of what is and is not possible. I have definitely had times in my life when I chose not to bother attempting to accomplish something because I thought it was impossible. At other times, I catch myself thinking this way and realize that it is precisely this type of thinking that could have landed me in an institution for the rest of my life. If there is one thing my life has taught me, it is that the dividing line between the possible and the impossible exists only within the confines of our own minds. In fact, I’ve found that I, rather than any external situation, am my own biggest limiter.
One line that parents of children with special needs hear more than anyone else is the “that’s impossible” line. The “experts” showered my parents with prognoses like “hopeless”, “irreversible”, “unreachable”, and “incurable”. All my parents had to do was believe these people (not a difficult task, since they had plenty of evidence to back their opinions), and my journey would have been over. Instead, my parents defied the purveyors of pessimism, disbelieved their prognoses, and grabbed hold of the belief that they could at least try to do what the world had, at the time, deemed impossible. Whatever you have been told about the darkness of your child’s future, don’t buy it. You and your child can do a whole lot more than any outsider can possibly know.
Some might claim that I am advocating “false hope”.Some assert that I cannot guarantee that all children will turn out like me. This is true. No one can guarantee that. But does this mean that parents should be discouraged from hoping for their children? Does anyone really believe that our children are better off with a life sentence than an open door and an outstretched hand?
When I was diagnosed with severe autism, my parents decided to see possibilities where others saw none, and it was this perspective that enabled my complete recovery. When I graduated from the Ivy League’s Brown University with a degree in Biomedical Ethics, that was the result of hope. When I became the director of an educational center for school-aged children, that was the product of hope. And now, as the Director of Global Education of the Autism Treatment Center of America®, there is not a single lecture I conduct or seminar I lead that would have occurred without hope. I don’t believe any parent should ever have to apologize for giving their child a chance. Hope leads to action, and without action, none of our children can be helped.
Whenever we’re faced with odds that seem insurmountable and skeptics whose numbers appear infinite, we can remember the words spoken by Bobby Kennedy: “Some see things as they are and ask ‘why’. I dream of things that never were and ask ‘why not?'” You can always ask, “Why” when you’re told you can’t accomplish something. You can always see things that never were when evidence is presented against your dreams. You can always reach for new possibilities when you have a different vision for your child. Let those around you live their own lives, but don’t let them live yours. You have more greatness than you might think.