Marshmallows and Ducks’ Feet

 I’m sorry I’m so late getting this blog post out.  No, wait – actually I’m not sorry.  Not one bit!

I’m actually delighted that I’m late, because I had a great time ditching you all.  Instead of rushing to get the kids off to school yesterday and then spending my morning struggling to think of something profound to say about autism, I was camping on the coast with my family.  At sunrise I was strolling along the beach, arm in arm with my hubby, watching the early morning light tint the waves pink and having fun trying to decipher the stories behind the different footprints we found in the sand.  There were a few virtuous souls out there, jogging their way to health.  We watched them for a while, then followed our noses into town to a bakery famous for its ooey, gooey cinnamon rolls.  (They lived up to their reputation!)  No, I have to say that I didn’t miss you guys at all.

Perhaps I should have felt guilty that I was stepping out of the autism world for a little while.  Actually it wasn’t the autism world, per se, but more the world of responsibilities.  Instead of doing homework this weekend, my kids were eating toasted marshmallows.  (They didn’t eat them so much as ‘accidently’ light them on fire and watch them foam, bubble and char.  Yeah, it wastes food – but you have to admit, those flaming balls of destruction look pretty awesome.)  They went hiking through a grove of eucalyptus to search the canopy for the first arrivals of the monarch butterfly migration.  They stared up at the clusters of fluttering orange wings for a few minutes, then while my daughter sketched, the boys wandered off to ogle a duck’s foot they’d found on the path.  (No duck, just a dried up old foot. Some things are more interesting than butterflies, I guess.)  They rode bicycles and argued and slept late in sleeping bags and ate grilled pizza that was only slightly burned.  It was a trip we couldn’t have taken when they were little because autism would have made it too hard, but we could take it now and we did. 

Maybe I should have felt guilty that I’d pulled them out of speech therapy and geometry and English papers and the never-ending waterfall of homework.  Five years ago I wouldn’t have dreamed of missing a school day to take an extra-long weekend.  School is too important.  My kids’ futures are too important.  But now I realize that every once in a while (and I mean super-duper-rarely-only-once-or-twice-a-year), a little family vacation is pretty important too. 

My kids aren’t getting any younger.  We’re already passed the days when the swings at the park are a big thrill or watching trains go by or wading in the waves.  We’re already to “Isn’t that guy at the snack bar cute?” and “Can we have some money to go into town?” and “Do I really have to turn off my iPod?”  (Although apparently dead duck bits are still fascinating.)  My family is getting older, and if my husband and I blink we’re going to miss it. 

So, no, I don’t feel bad about taking a weekend to step out of the world and enjoy my family.  Geometry can be made up, sunny fall weekends at the beach can’t.  Neither can whatever it is that you and your family like to do.  It may be camping, or bicycling, or watching a movie together or going out for pizza.  Whatever it is, do yourself and your family a favor – take a little time out of your routine to spend some time together.  Make it a mini-vacation, even if it’s just for a few hours.  Leave autism at home as much as you can.   Your child will still have autism, but for a little while don’t let it be the focus of your relationship with him or the focus of your family.  Let it be butterflies or marshmallows or dead ducks.  Take a little time to remember why you had kids in the first place.

And take a little tip from Aunt Cassie.  Don’t waste your time trying to get your kids to ignore whatever disgusting dead thing they find on the trail in favor of the educational exhibit you took them to see.  Instead, let them enjoy their vacation.  And while their attention is focused someplace else, take the opportunity to sneak a smooch with your sweetie.  Remember, it’s your guys’ vacation, too.

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Blinded by Science

A year or so ago I had the wonderful opportunity to have lunch with several people who are prominent in the field of autism.   It was great.  I found myself at a big table, tucked inbetween a famous author (who has autism and isn’t Temple Grandin) and a researcher from a big university who was conducting studies about teaching social skills to first graders.  I know, awesome, right?  It was.  I was having the time of my life, just sitting there eating my chicken sandwich and listening to everyone talk.  I mean, what was I going to add to the conversation?  Here were a bunch of people who each knew at least twenty times what I did about autism and have the credentials to prove it.  I felt like a junior high kid who accidently wandered onto a college campus and sat at the senior’s lunch table.  I was keeping quiet and trying not to sound like an idiot or dribble food down the front of my shirt.

Then I heard the researcher sitting next to me (I’ll call him Dr. X) talking to the young man to his left.  The young man had Asperger’s and had said he was interested in finding a romantic relationship.  “Hmm,” said Dr. X, “that’s highly unlikely.  After all, the amount of adaptation you and your partner would each need to make in order to sustain a relationship is quite large.”  Or, to translate his academic lingo into the kind of words you and I use, “Sorry dude, but you’re too weird for any girl to like you and even if she did, it would never work.”     

Now, I know Dr. X hadn’t meant to be cruel.  He was looking at the young man as a statistic, as a subject in one of his studies, as a member of a population he was studying under a microscope.  He didn’t see the kid as a lonely, young man who wanted a girlfriend to snuggle; he saw him as ‘subject, 22 years of age, Asperger’s/mild autism, status: seeking relationship’.  He looked at him through the lens of what he knew about autism, and it never occurred to him that he didn’t know a tinker’s darn about people with autism.

Now, I’m not saying Dr. X is dumb – far from it.  Nor am I saying that the studies he’s conducting aren’t shedding valuable light on our methods of teaching first grader’s not to spit on each other, which as the mother of an ex-first grader I consider extremely important.  I’m sure Dr. X is doing a bang-up job and that our autistic kids will be better for his efforts.  What I am saying is that if you think folks with Asperger’s/autism rarely get married, you ought to climb out of your ivory tower and go for a walk-about.  Go find some real adult Aspies and have a look-see.  Before you start making statements (especially to impressionable young men) about the ability for ASRD folks to have a relationship, go study some of the hundreds of thousands of married Aspies out there.   

It’s not like adult Aspies are hard to find.  Just go to any science fiction/fantasy/historical convention in the world, throw a rock into the crowd, then go talk to whomever yelps.  Or go chat with the folks at your nearest engineering firm, science lab or college gaming club.  (Or check universities where they have researchers who don’t have the social skills to know you don’t tell young adults that they’re too weird to get a date.)  In a time when Comic-Con makes the front page of CNN’s website every year, Aspie’s are pretty mainstream and very visible.  While by no means is every engineer, scientist, gamer or convention attendee on the Autism spectrum, Aspies show up in those areas in higher numbers than in areas like telemarketing, cheerleading, middle management and sales.  My point is, it doesn’t take a whole lot of effort to find them.

One of the first things you’ll notice once you start meeting these hordes of adult Aspies, is that a lot of them are female. Mothers, wives, grandmothers, ladies content to be single, and also a whole bunch who are looking for boyfriends.  If this is news to the folks running autism research programs it sure isn’t to the people who sell Princess Leia slave girl costumes.  They’ve known it for about 30 years now, which makes them youngsters compared to the guys who sell Lord of The Rings elf ears, Star Trek’s Yoeman Rand mini-skirts and boots, or Renaissance era bodice making supplies.  There are lot of Aspie/Geek girls out there making the best of what nature gave them in their search for romance.  

And they’re finding it too.  Take a minute to look at: www.offbeatbride.com, where you can find ideas for fandom wedding cakes (think Dr. Who, Transformers, Portal, Lego, Pacman, or mathematical equations); geek wedding favors (like personalized gaming dice, L-O-V-E computer keys, or space invader chocolates); and presents for the wedding party (like life-sized light sabers or cufflinks made from watch-parts.)  Check out Google to see what’s hot in geek wedding dresses.  Zombie brides are in, as are Steampunk, electronic-ala-Tron, superhero, Victorian gothic and the newly popular vintage carnival bride.  (Moms, take notes on all this wedding stuff – you need it one day, trust me.  And don’t be surprised when sometime after that, you’re out shopping for an R2D2 baby bonnet.  Better yet, learn to sew.  It’ll save you trouble in the long run.)  

Back to Dr. X.  The whole reason I’m telling you about this conversation is not to point out that he’s nearsighted when it comes to his research.  It’s to remind you that although our social scientists are a clever bunch of folks who are working really hard, they’ve still got a lot to learn when it comes to autism.  As far as I know, most of them haven’t even checked out the local Star Trek convention to figure out the proper protocol for picking up a Klingon chick or discovered the rules to one-ups-manship when it comes to quoting cult movies.  Until they can explain to me how leadership is determined in a Dungeons and Dragons raiding party, I won’t believe they fully understand social functioning in Aspie-land or the future of our kids.  And don’t you believe them either.  Take what knowledge you can get from them but don’t let their current understanding of autism discourage you or limit your child. 

I’m sure a lot of you reading are still thinking about that young man in the beginning of my story.  You want to know if the poor kid went away thinking he was a mutant who’d never find a sweetheart.  (And you want to kick Dr. X in the shins.)  Don’t worry, I set the guy straight.  It wasn’t hard.  I just pointed to the folks on my right, the famous Aspie couple who’ve made a living the last several years on the lecture tour, talking about their lives together and their relationship.  That boy has got a lot of examples of happy couples out there for inspiration.  Don’t worry, somewhere out there a cute little nerd-girl is waiting for him, Pokemon costume and all.

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