Consider this opening paragraph from the book Strengths Finder 2.0:
At its fundamentally flawed core, the aim of almost any learning program is to help us become who we are not. If you don’t have natural talent with numbers, you’re still forced to spend time in that area to attain a degree. If you’re not very empathic, you get sent to a course designed to infuse empathy into your personality. From the cradle to the cubicle, we devote more time to our shortcomings than to our strengths.
Any autism parent – any parent, for that matter – will likely recognize that this is exactly what we tend to do with our autistic children. In fact, it is what is expected of us, to try to make our autistic children into someone they are not. But that doesn’t mean that is what we should be doing.
The following originally appeared here in February 2006.
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Indulge your (kid’s) obsession
I spent Saturday afternoon this weekend at a Yugi-oh regional tournament with my younger (non-autistic) son, who is 13. Though he was not the youngest duelist there, he was one of a handful of kids under 15 in a group of 80+ duelists. (In case you’re not familiar with Yugi-oh, participants are duelists, not ‘players.’) The ages ranged all the way up to 40+, with the bulk of them in their late teens through early twenties. All duelists were male, save one.
I have the feeling that if you were to observe many of these guys in a ‘normal’ environment – say your local high school – your first impression would be “outcast,” “nerd,” or something similar. They have long unkempt hair and a preference for black t-shirts. They keep to themselves, or a small group of like-minded friends. They are not the ‘social butterflies’ that seem to be demanded in that environment. In a word, they would appear to be “non-social” (ok, maybe that’s two words *-).
Put almost a hundred of them in a room together at a tournament where everyone is trying to prove they are the best duelist in town, though, and what you get is a room full of ‘social butterflies.’ As duelists finish their match, they congratulate each other on a match well played. They walk through the room, soaking in what others are doing. In between rounds, they seek each other out, talking strategy, asking about the cards they have (Yugi-oh is what they call a Trading Card Game). It doesn’t matter if you are good are bad, new or experienced. The only thing that matters is that you are interested (I should say obsessed) with the game.
The thing is, many parents I know don’t understand – and thus discourage – their kid’s obsession with this and other similar games. These parents can’t grasp the hours and hours their kids spend learning each card’s abilities, their strengths and weaknesses, how they can be used together, and how they can be used in response to an opponents actions, or the many more hours (and $$$) spent acquiring and sorting through cards to build the perfect deck. And of course, the many many hours spent practicing by dueling with friends, or in solo practice.
Wait a second. Those things sound an awful lot like what most kids go through when they find their obsession. Take a sport like football. Kids spend hours learning playbooks. They spend hours after school every day of the week at practice, sometimes on the weekend. They gather for games in the hope of proving they are the best. It’s just that these ‘obsessions’ are ‘mainstream’, so their parents proudly refer to them as their children’s ‘passions’ or ‘talents.’
Luke Jackson said it best (I’ve quoted this before, but it seemed worth repeating):
Q: When is an obsession not an obsession?
A: When it is about football.How unfair is that?! It seems that our society fully accepts the fact that a lot of men and boys ‘eat, sleep and breathe’ football and people seem to think that if someone doesn’t, then they are not fully male. Stupid!
Girls are lucky enough to escape this football mania but I have noticed that teenage girls have to know almost every word of every song in the charts and who sang what and who is the fittest guy going, so I suppose an AS girl (or a non-AS one) that had interests other than that is likely to experience the same difficulties as a non-football crazy boy.
I am sure that if a parent went to a doctor and said that their teenage son wouldn’t shut up about football, they would laugh and tell them that it was perfectly normal. It seems as if we all have to be the same.
Though I hate to engage in arm-chair neurology, I’d be willing to bet that if these duelists were ‘evaluated,’ quite a few of them would show up on the autism spectrum, likely as Aspies. That is, if they were evaluated in the general context that those types of evaluation are done – against the ‘norms’ of society today. Conduct their evaluation in the context of their world, the world in which they can indulge their passions, and I think they would show up as perfectly normal (whatever the hell that means).
In my thinking over the last week or so on what it means to be different, I seem to keep coming back to the same point over and over: it’s not our kids that have a problem; it’s the world they must live in that has the problem.
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