My husband and I are the sometimes-proud, sometimes-mortified parents of a four-and-a-half year old boy, Jonah, who has autism. Jonah is a bright, mischievous, affectionate, challenging, monkey of a kid. We love him and are managing our somewhat unusual lives pretty well. With autism, though, everything can seem like a challenge: meals, bath time, car trips, birthday parties, you name it.
Among other things, Jonah doesn’t talk and he doesn’t understand normal social cues. He’ll walk up to a stranger at the park and rifle through her picnic basket. He’ll climb up a playground slide without taking note of whether or not some kid is poised to slide down right into him. Every time he hears the song “Happy Birthday to You,” he marches up to the place of honor, ready to blow out the candles and tear into cake. When prevented, distracted, or redirected away from these activities, a tantrum is the likely result. And when the tantrum is in public, there’s usually the added fun of strangers’ stares, glares, and disapproving glances. I could go on…but this article isn’t about what autism is, or how it is difficult, or why its occurrence has risen to epidemic proportions. It’s about the advantages of autism. And really, there are several.
I have to admit right off the bat: I’m only being half-facetious when I say we fully intend to cash in on any and all emergent savant skills, like in the Las Vegas scene from Rain Man — but that doesn’t seem likely since they say only 10% or so of autists have these skills. Oh, well. Winning ridiculous amounts of money counting cards isn’t everything, I suppose. Good thing there are other things we can enjoy right now.
One is innocence. While other kids his age have “moved on” to superheroes and swords, our son still loves bubbles and blocks. While his peers have discarded traditional kids’ songs for pop music, Jonah still happily requests “Wheels on the Bus” – and does all the hand motions too. He doesn’t watch commercials then demand whatever toy or gadget or breakfast cereal was advertised. He doesn’t understand the concept of Christmas or birthdays, at least not in the way other kids do, so he’s perfectly happy with a few toys and something yummy to eat.
When our son is fully enjoying himself, there is no one as uninhibitedly delighted. A joyful Jonah is a beautiful sight. He is never embarrassed or self-conscious about what he is doing, and it shows. What you get is a child largely unaffected by most things that can’t help but affect the consciousness of other kids: bad news on TV, anxiety about dad leaving for work, fear of the boogeyman under the bed. In a sense, autism protects him from much of the normal worry, apprehension, and insecurity of being an almost-five-year-old kid.
Also, people have told us he’s especially entertaining to watch – and we can see why; the way he interacts with his environment is undeniably interesting. We consider it an advantage to have a child who sees the world through a somehow different lens. He’ll hold his fingers up to his eyes to catch an interesting visual, or cock his head to the side and look at things from an angle. He adores kaleidoscopes and spinning toys and flashlights and seems to see them in a way the rest of us can’t. He teaches us to stop, look, and listen to things in a manner that may never have occurred to us before.
There are advantages, even, to his silence. Though we’d love for him to learn to talk and are doing everything we can to help him learn to communicate verbally, it is nice to know he’s not going to start yelling obscenities in the mall or call the cops and tell them our house is on fire. He may perseverate on the light switch by turning it on and off a thousand times, but we’re never subjected to endless repetitions of movie quotes, nursery rhymes, or some random snippet of something he heard on TV.
In fact, we’ve come to find that for every challenge we face with Jonah, we’re presented an unexpected, precious, and often humorous gift. The gifts are what keep us going – for, as with everything in life, they balance out the bad and show us our son and situation in an ever-changing, beautiful light.
And perhaps that balance is, really, the greatest gift of all.