“This is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy. People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, hum-drum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It was sanity: and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad. It was the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, seeming to stoop this way and to sway that, yet in every attitude having the grace of statuary and the accuracy of arithmetic. The Church in its early days went fierce and fast with any warhorse; yet it is utterly unhistoric to say that she merely went mad along one idea, like a vulgar fanaticism. She swerved to left and right, so exactly as to avoid enormous obstacles. She left on one hand the huge bulk of Arianism, buttressed by all the worldly powers to make Christianity too worldly. The next instant she was swerving to avoid an orientalist, which would have made it too unworldly. The orthodox Church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions; the orthodox Church was never respectable. It would have been easier to have accepted the earthly power of the Arians. It would have been easy, in the Calvinistic seventeenth century, to fall into the bottomless pit of predestination. It is easy to be a madman: it is easy to be a heretic. It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one’s own. It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob. To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom – that would indeed have been simple. It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.” – G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy
This post is part of my april autism series for autism acceptance month. Visit the first post here for links to the rest of the series!
I still remember the first time I heard of autism, although I don’t remember exactly how old I was (I think I was younger than 10). My dad was talking about one of his coworkers who had twins, telling my mom that while one of the children was developing normally, the other didn’t speak and liked to watch objects spin instead of playing with them in a typical way. My major impression was that autism was a sad and life-ruining thing (probably because my dad said it was sad), but I didn’t really understand what was so wrong about this little boy’s way of being and developing. In hindsight, I think this was the first time I realized that there was a “normal” way to be and that there could be something wrong about being different.
In the years since then, I’ve learned a lot more about what autism actually is: not a spectre of damaged children unable to connect and interact as humans, but a different neurological operating system that manifests in a fairly consistent range of behavioral patterns. Interestingly, these behaviors do not include either intellectual or language impairments, although both of these can present along with autism in an individual. Instead, autistic differences center around areas of social communication, sensory processing, and cognitive focus (including executive functioning). Autistic development is not necessarily disordered – it just proceeds on a different timeline than normal. Autistic ways of thinking, of processing sensory information, of handling emotions in the self and others, are not broken – just different.
The medical definition of autism can of course be found in the DSM-V, and I believe it is good to read and understand that definition even if it does portray autism in a pathologized way, but my personal favorite description comes from Nick Walker at Neurocosmopolitanism (go read the full article!):
The complex set of interrelated characteristics that distinguish autistic neurology from non-autistic neurology is not yet fully understood, but current evidence indicates that the central distinction is that autistic brains are characterized by particularly high levels of synaptic connectivity and responsiveness. This tends to make the autistic individual’s subjective experience more intense and chaotic than that of non-autistic individuals: on both the sensorimotor and cognitive levels, the autistic mind tends to register more information, and the impact of each bit of information tends to be both stronger and less predictable. (emphasis added)
Walker puts so much useful information into this paragraph. While lists of common autistic behaviors can be helpful, especially when deciding whether an ASD diagnosis might describe yourself or someone you know, they can often seem disjointed and random without an understanding of their underlying cause (and, I think, can contribute to the common uninformed statement that “everyone is a little bit autistic).
But knowing this central difference between the neurotypical and autistic brain can provide a clearer delineation between the two, regardless of potentially overlapping behaviors, and can also explain many of the strengths and challenges associated with autism. For example, autistic individuals can often have excellent long-term memory and fact recall, as well as higher innate abilities to analyze data and detect patterns – all of which makes sense if the autistic brain is picking up on more information (with more internal emphasis), on a cognitive level, than the neurotypical brain. On the other hand, picking up more information with a stronger impact on the sensory level can make coping with everyday life extremely difficult, when “normal” touch and sound and smell can be acutely uncomfortable or overwhelming.
I’ll be going through more of those differences, both positive and negative, later this week, but for now the important point is that all autistic traits and behaviors stem from a fundamental neurological difference, and that autism, this difference in a person’s innate operating system – in the way they perceive, process, and respond to the world around them – does not make an autistic individual any less in terms of personhood, human dignity, ethical consideration, or worth.
“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
my spirit rejoices in God my savior.
For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness;
behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed.
The Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is from age to age
to those who fear him.
He has shown might with his arm,
dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart.
He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones
but lifted up the lowly.
The hungry he has filled with good things;
the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped Israel his servant,
remembering his mercy,
according to his promise to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
– Luke 1:46-55
When the angels went away from them to heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went in haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known the message that had been told them about this child. All who heard it were amazed by what had been told them by the shepherds.
And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.
– Luke 2:15-19
He [Simeon] came in the Spirit into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus to perform the custom of the law in regard to him, he took him into his arms and blessed God, saying:
“Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word,
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you prepared in sight of all the peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and glory for your people Israel.”
The child’s father and mother were amazed at what was said about him; and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted (and you yourself a sword will pierce) so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”
– Luke 2:27-35
“When we set children against one another in contests – from spelling bees to awards assemblies to science “fairs” (that are really contests), from dodge ball to honor rolls to prizes for the best painting or the most books read – we teach them to confuse excellence with winning, as if the only way to do something well is to outdo others. We encourage them to measure their own value in terms of how many people they’ve beaten, which is not exactly a path to mental health. We invite them to see their peers not as potential friends or collaborators but as obstacles to their own success. (Quite predictably, researchers have found that the results of competition often include aggression, cheating, envy of winners, contempt for losers, and a suspicious posture toward just about everyone.) Finally, we lead children to regard whatever they’re doing as a means to an end: The point isn’t to paint or read or design a science experiment, but to win. The act of painting, reading, or designing is thereby devalued in the child’s mind.“
Alfie Kohn, The Myth of the Spoiled Child, Chapter 4
“So yes. It had flaws, but what does that matter when it comes to matters of the heart? We love what we love. Reason does not enter into it. In many ways, unwise love is the truest love. Anyone can love a thing because. That’s as easy as putting a penny in your pocket. But to love something despite. To know the flaws and love them too. That is rare and pure and perfect.” – Patrick Rothfuss, A Wise Man’s Fear
“Asher picked out a rocket Popsicle while I parked the bike and looked for a spot in the sun, eventually setting on a rainbow-colored, oversized hammock. We climbed in and lay next to each other, his head cradled in the nook of my arm, and we swung slowly, gazing up at the giant sycamore trees, new green leaves silhouetted against the blue sky. It was the first time in recent memory that I’d stopped moving, thinking, planning, working, or teaching and done nothing but be in that moment. A moment, I might add, in which Asher stopped talking about Minecraft and Plants Versus Zombies. Instead, as we lay there gently swaying, we talked about spring. And homeschooling. And beauty. And peace and contentedness. And how nature can be a kind of religion. And how important it is to notice and appreciate. And about how sticky hands get when Popsicle juice drips on them.
“[…] When we’re not living in presence, we miss the little things – the bright spots that are there, even when we have to search hard to find them. The tiny growth spurts. The moments of brilliance. The sparks of joy. To experience these things we have to fully be here, open and present.” – Debbie Reber, Differently Wired
It’s tempting for me to be always immersed in my phone, or a book, or a coloring sheet, or even just my to-do list for the day. But I’ve noticed that when I actively engage with my children, when I am present in their games and conversation (even if I am just observing while making dinner or cleaning), their imagination is sparked, their reactions are more positive, their responses are more mature, and their smiles are brighter.
(Also, they tend to be much more accepting of time apart if our time together is truly a time of connection and presence, which allows me to have more space for deeper renewal and refreshment when I need it.)
It isn’t just me, the parent, who benefits when I choose to be present – my children benefit as well. My presence assures them of my love. It demonstrates that they are worthy of authentic attention and connection. It gives them confidence in the value of their ideas. It gives them the opportunity to learn from any experience and wisdom I may have.
And it is in all the moments, silly and stressful, happy and hard, that a deep and lasting relationship can grow between us. If I choose to be mentally elsewhere for those moments, I choose to stunt rather than nurture that relationship. But if I choose to be present, I am choosing to water and fertilize that relationship, and to weed out all the other trivial things that compete with my children for my attention, emotional energy, and time.
Being present means playing peek-a-boo with Aubade when she hides her face in her hands.
Being present means talking in a baby voice for hours because the mommy animals in the house want me to be their baby elephant.
Being present means getting to cheer Limerick on when he chases a ball around the pool and finally manages to grab it, instead of staying oblivious to his persistence and success.
Being present means laughing when Rondel jumps into the pool and totally soaks me with the splash, instead of perceiving it as an interruption of my more important business.
Being present means noticing how Limerick observes and investigates the world around him, constantly soaking up knowledge with his thirsty pattern-loving mind.
And most of all, being present means mutual openness, a sharing of happiness, and a fostering of love. Yes, I need space and time alone – but when I am with my kids, I am going to try to be fully present as much as possible.
If you liked the quote from Differently Wired, read my brief review of the book here and check back in June for the giveaway!
Also, check here for a list of some awesome pre-order bonuses you can receive for no additional cost if you order the book before June 12th!
“So far we’ve talked about getting out of our limited thinking and envisioning how we’d design our ideal day if we knew we would be successful. We explored letting go of our own emotional baggage, recognizing them our personal triggers have been provoked, and committing to parenting our children from a place of possibility instead of fear. But for this last Tilt, I want to talk explicitly about fully leaning in to the power of our personal choice and using it as a foundation for creating what our child needs. Because the truth is, what our child needs may not exist yet. But why should that stop us?” – Debbie Reber, Differently Wired
If you liked the quote from Differently Wired, read my brief review of the book here and check back in June for the giveaway!