See that grainy picture right there? That’s my oldest son speaking with Eustacia Cutler, better known as Temple Grandin’s mother. Yes, that Temple Grandin. We were at a conference on autism on Friday, where Cutler and Grandin were both featured speakers.
I wasn’t thinking of attending this conference—I had only heard remotely that it might be going on. But my son found out about it and practically begged me to take him. I was a little reticent. I thought it would be one of those highly scripted events, where the speakers on stage to rousing applause, give their spiels, and then are whisked off to some undisclosed location. So I suspected that my boy’s dream of meeting Temple Grandin would probably not come true, and that he might end up disappointed.
I was wrong. No sooner had we entered the lecture hall than we found Eustacia Cutler milling about, unrecognized by many of the attendees. So I took my boy up to meet her. She was as charming as could be, introducing herself to him and asking about him and his family. Very classy in the way that only New England matriarchs of a certain socioeconomic status can be. Then the moment was gone, and we had to find our seats.
Michael was thrilled to have met her, if only so briefly. He also felt emboldened by it—and dramatically so. This kid, who is usually very shy and unnecessarily aware of his “otherness,” found the courage during the Q&A part of her talk to go up on stage and ask Cutler a question. Seriously. He walked right up in front of nearly three hundred people, spoke into the microphone, and his story. He talked about how he’s scared to make the transition from his very small private, Aspergers-only middle school (with a student body of 25) to the big, noisy, public high school where he is enrolled (population: 1,500). Cutler was impressed by his courage, and she told him to just be himself, remember his poise, and not to let anyone tell him he’s anything less than an amazing, goodhearted kid. Then everyone in the room gave him a big round of applause. I was floored.
A Minor Celebrity.
It was an awesome moment for me as a dad to see my son take this step. I spend so much time thinking about his social anxieties, his cognitive glitches, and his emotional ups and downs. I fret over his prickly relationships with his siblings. I worry about his struggle to handle sensory overload. But here he was, holding a conversation with Temple Grandin’s mother in a full-to-capacity conference hall!
Of course, all of my pride pales when compared to my son’s own response. He was shaking in his shoes, he told me, but he felt so good that he could talk to someone who understood his challenges—in front of so many fellow travelers. What’s more, he became a minor celebrity for the day. At every break during the conference, people came up to him to congratulate him, to tell him how they could relate to what he was saying, and to encourage him. Over and over again, they told him, “If you could get on that stage and talk in front of so many people, you’re going to do great.” One young man with Asperger syndrome, who just graduated high school, told him, “That was awesome! I couldn’t have done what you just did.” He and my son spoke for a good while, comparing experiences of having been bullied in middle school. He told my boy that high school is a different, and easier, challenge altogether, and he encouraged him to push through any anxiety he might feel. “There are a lot of kids like you out there. You just have to find them, and you’ll fit in.”
It got better from there. Temple Grandin herself came wandering through the hall during the second break, and I took Michael to meet her. Then, after lunch, he found her himself and spoke with her. Then again after her talk. Three different encounters with someone he admires so much. Three different topics of conversation. Not a fear in the world!
My son did so well that I gave in and let him buy a (small) can of Red Bull, a drink he has long wanted to taste. I also bought him a copy of Grandin’s latest book. I didn’t really have a choice in that one. He had picked up a copy of the book to bring it to me and ask if we could buy it. On his way to find me, he bumped into Grandin one last time. She saw the book in his hand, assumed he had already bought it, and autographed it for him. What else could I do?
A Glimpse of the Future.
Anyway, we drove home at the end of the day, my son asleep next to me, as I excitedly filled Katie in on the day’s events.
This is what I love about my kids. Every now and then, they throw me for a completely beautiful loop. Here I was worried about whether he would be able to make it through one talk, let alone four—and he goes and does this!
We got home just in time for dinner, which was just as chaotic as it always is. For us, this meant a couple of tantrums and a minor melt down. Even my oldest, who acted so much like a young man during the day, collapsed halfway through. But that’s okay. I got a glimpse of the future, and it looked very bright indeed.