“He’s weird,” they whispered, loudly enough for me to hear them. “What’s wrong with him?” A new voice answered matter-of-factly, “Oh, he’s got Autism. My mom knows his mom.” I lowered my head and hurried to my desk, hot tears spilling from my eyes as I sat down and flung open my book. The teacher, ignoring the conversation, spun to face the board and scribbled a sentence diagram with a rapidly shrinking piece of chalk. My vision blurred as the tears flowed openly.
I was no stranger to these types of conversations. In fact, I almost expected them. I was subjected to social torture almost every day during my middle school career. I’d catch my classmates sneering at me when I got reprimanded for speaking out in class, and in the schoolyard I’d be physically harassed regularly. On one occasion in high school, I was even publicly humiliated, or hazed, sending me spiraling into a dark period of depression and uncontrollable anger. I distanced myself from my family, and became so lonely that I started imagining doing the unthinkable. It seemed that I was one against the world, and so I retreated, trusting no one and lashing out at those who tried to help. Was there anyone who shared my experiences, who understood how painful it is to be ostracized and humiliated by everyone?
Years of therapy and constant medication adjustment helped put me on a path of stability and happiness, but it took me a bit longer to discover that the real change had to come from within myself. The change came in high school, junior year to be specific, when I decided that I had to stop feeling sorry for myself. I started telling myself that it was a privilege to know me, and that anyone who treated me poorly because of a label was not worth my time. I didn’t fully adopt this mindset until last year, so as you can tell, it took a few years to believe this to be true. And once I started believing in my potential and started making changes in my everyday life, good things started happening. I became a professional journalist at age 19(a profession I’m still very much involved in), I started blossoming socially, and I grew more confident and more sure of myself. I won 1st place in a college writing contest before I graduated high school, and I earned the respect of nearly everyone I came into contact with. I had evolved from a timid young boy to an independent, competent, and successful adult with so much to offer this world. But none of this would have happened if I hadn’t believed in my abilities and taken action.
It took me years to achieve this level of happiness. My mom built a foundation for my confidence by setting the bar at a level she knew I could reach, then raised that bar every time I reached that level. She did this by making me do household chores, sometimes chores as simple as cleaning the upstairs bathroom or picking up after our dogs in the backyard. She would help me with math problems by doing a few herself, then handing the pencil to me so I could do some completely on my own. When I would answer a problem correctly, I felt a sense of joy and elation that I’d never experienced before. I started asking myself, “Well, that’s in the bag. What else can I do?” Then my work was cut out for me. I started experimenting, discovering my strengths, my weaknesses, and who I was. As I worked to gain confidence in everything I did, I started developing social skills. Trust me, I was far from perfect in this regard for years. I still am. But I became confident enough to try. It’s unreasonable to expect to make friends if you don’t make any effort, a fact I was startled to discover in my sophomore year.
The social skills came much quicker than I had ever anticipated. I asked classmates how their days were going, what their interests were, and what they wanted to do after high school. Suddenly, people started talking to me, asking me to hang out with them after school, inviting me to parties. I was shocked. “Is this really all it takes?” I asked myself, so happy I could burst. Soon I had a social network, girls were asking me out, and I felt a sense of acceptance and satisfaction that I’d never experienced before.
This transformation can be replicated. People with Asperger’s have amazing potential and incredible hearts, qualities that are sometimes difficult for others to see because of all of the issues attached to the disorder. For them to access this power, you, the parent, must get them to a point where they believe in what they can do. Make them do little things around the house to instill this sense of confidence, and, above all else, ENCOURAGE THEM. It’s so important to foster their sense of self-worth through encouragement and positive reinforcement, because sometimes all they need is an extra nudge.
To believe in your child’s potential is to give yourself up fully and completely to the faith that they can do amazing things. And once that faith grabs them and takes effect, there is nothing they can’t do.