In a pediatrician’s office in Kansas, Mr. and Mrs. Kent talked with a specialist, hoping to get help for their disabled boy. “He’s two years old and he still can’t walk,” said Mrs. Kent. “Instead, he pushes himself up and floats around the house.” “And he has broken all his toys,” chimed in Mr. Kent. “The boy tries to play like other kids, but he can’t control his strength.” The specialist looked at the anxious parents, “Mr. and Mrs. Kent,” he said, “your son has a rare, but serious condition called superheroism. Of course, there is no guarantee, but I have been quite successful in treating this condition.” The Kents were relieved. Finally, they had a name to put on their son’s condition. Now they could start making him better.
My 7-year-old daughter has a superhero costume she likes to wear around the house. The costume is a leotard with a big “S” in front, a cape, and a mask. It is in her favorite color, pink — or at least it used to be pink. It is now sort of a gray-pink shade from overuse.
It’s fun to watch her playing a superhero, but lately I’ve wondered if she might actually have superpowers. No, I haven’t seen her take to the skies or lift a car so I could change a flat tire. In fact, she has done things that don’t seem particularly super at all. My daughter was diagnosed with autism nearly three and a half years ago. She started speaking late, had odd social interactions with kids and adults alike, and could throw some world-class meltdowns long after most of her peers had moved on from temper tantrums.
Autism is a condition that results in difficulties with social interactions and learning. Some autistic people are so challenged that they cannot communicate verbally, hurt themselves, and may not be able to live independent lives. However, there are many examples of autistic people with unbelievable abilities in areas such as music, academia, business, technology, and even comedy. You can call these talents. I call them superpowers.
However, as the parent of an autistic child, I far too often feel overwhelmed by her challenges and lose sight of her promise. For years, my daughter woke up so often each night that my wife and I took turns sleeping on the floor next to her. Meltdowns at school and at home leave teachers and family members alike feeling shell-shocked. We didn’t look at our daughter and see a future superhero. We saw a kid with a cloud over her future.
But, as I read stories about the amazing things some autistics can do, I started to wonder what this meant for my little girl. Her challenges had been taking up so much of my time that I had failed to look for flashes of brilliance.
In many, many superhero movies, the hero feels excluded from peers. Movies like X-Men, Superman, and even Disney’s Frozen show characters with abilities that isolate them from others. At some point in these stories, the heroes learn to manage their abilities and begin to use them to make the world a better place. They realize that these special powers are not a liability, but assets the world truly needs.
Like many autistics, my daughter is stubborn. When she wants me to buy her a toy that I don’t intend to purchase, she will hound me unmercifully. When teachers at school try to get her to do an activity she doesn’t want to do, her resistance is fierce. This stubbornness is exasperating, but it can also be a strength.
I occasionally take my daughter to her favorite place, our community pool. I watch her approach other little girls her age, “Hi! Wanna play?” she says. Often, the other girls will just swim away. My daughter isn’t deterred. Over and over she approaches a different child, “Hi! Wanna play?” I cringe each time it happens. But on almost every trip to the pool, she finds someone, often more than one child, to play with. Her persistence in the face of regular rejection nearly always pays off. It’s one particular superpower that has allowed her to meet some really wonderful kids.
We’ve come a long way from the days when autistics were locked up in institutions. Public schools now educate autistic children, often in the same classroom as neurotypicals (thank you IDEA). We are also seeing more efforts to help autistic adults lead independent, self-fulfilling lives. The focus of much education and therapy for autistic children is to make them more like the rest of us, that is, to fix autism.
But what if autism is the cause of much brilliance in the world? What if autism is partially responsible for our information economy? What if we can credit autism for some of our important scientific discoveries? What if we can thank autism for some of our finest entertainment? In short, what if autism bestows superpowers? If it does, then wouldn’t an attempt to fix autism be the same as binding Wonder Woman’s wrists, making Elsa wear gloves, or giving Kryptonite to Superman?
I hear so many stories of incredible achievements of those with autism that I increasingly wonder, what if these people are not successful despite their autism but because of their autism? What if autism is not a disorder but an enhanced ability that is so great that it draws away from “normal” abilities? What if the problem with autism is not that people have it, but that the rest of us don’t know how to deal with it?
I regularly see people trying to make my daughter like everyone else, with the expectation that once we fix the challenges, we can focus on the things she is good at. At school, there has been a focus on getting her to sit still, not talk out of turn, and generally do what is expected of her while keeping her on grade level for her real passion, reading. I’m not convinced this is the right approach. While I know she can’t be throwing tantrums her whole life, and blowing raspberries at teachers is not OK, I don’t want to wait for her behavior to shape up before she develops her talents.
Learning to Fly
Sometime before my daughter’s fourth birthday, we were in the car on her way to child care. From the back seat I could hear her sounding out words. “Puh – Oh – Knee… Pony! Muh Er Muh Aid… Mermaid!” I was floored. I knew that my wife and I hadn’t taught her to do that. I had no idea that she was reading. I approached both her preschool and her child care center, congratulating them for teaching her to read. They thought I was nuts. But I wasn’t nuts. The kid was learning to read before she was 4. It took me a while to figure it out, but a children’s tablet that my mother had given my daughter for her birthday had lessons on sounding out words. She had taught herself to read using that tablet.
Her reading continued to advance, but as it became obvious that her reading ability was well above normal some at school gently told us, “Yes, she can read the words, but she doesn’t understand what she is reading. They are just words to her.” As my daughter demonstrated that she could correctly answer questions about the stories she had read, the cautions changed to, “Yes, she can read, and she can answer questions about the concrete parts (What color was her dress? Where did the princess find the frog?), but she doesn’t get the bigger picture (Why did the witch turn the prince into a frog? Why did the princess kiss the frog?).” This sounds like a fair concern until you hear my daughter reading stories with inflection and passion appropriate to the story. More impressively, she will use concepts from these stories to create her own stories.
I realize that early reading and persistence don’t sound much like superpowers, but I believe I am seeing the early signs of talent that can develop into something wonderful. I fear that if my wife and I wait for our daughter to learn to manage her stubbornness, and stop the meltdowns, before we help her develop her strengths, we will miss out on the skills that can make her happy and successful.
My daughter isn’t alone. I wonder what would happen if we all started with the assumption that autistic people have amazing abilities that need to be discovered. I wonder what would happen if we spent less time trying to fix them and more time nurturing their unique talents. Perhaps what is really needed is for those of us who are not autistic to change ourselves to better see their potential.
Maybe we would discover that we are not facing an autism crisis but a superhero explosion.
“Mr. and Mrs. Kent, we have some great news. There is a new therapy that we believe will significantly reduce your son’s symptoms. This therapy combines a new medication, Krypto-pills, with therapy to teach little Clark to stay on the ground and stop using his excess strength. We think we can make your son almost normal!” The Kents thought for a moment and looked at each other. They then took little Clark by the hand and walked out of the office.