A Perplexing Plethora of Plushes


With great pride, she posts this picture on Facebook, reveling in her massive collection of Pokémon plushes.

I see the post, and all I can think about is the anxiety, conflict, tension, and melt-downiness related to these infernal creatures.  

• The extra backpack stuffed with as many as possible to help her make it through a school day. 
• The destruction she has wrought to other kids’ plushes in order to fashion her own copycat creations.

• The often tear-filled way she has obsessed over the next plush that she absolutely, positively has to obtain within the next few days.

• The huge mess she has created in her bedroom because she needs all these creatures around her when she sleeps–and she needs them to be in a heap, not in some orderly grouping.

However . . .

• She sees the post as a way of celebrating her best friends and most constant companions.

• She has found countless hours of consolation with these plushes. Especially in times of stress and fear.

• These creatures have helped her maintain a good portion of her innocence and childlike nature well into her teenage years.

• They have sparked many a creative story-telling session. Granted, the stories exist in her mind and are rarely shared with other people. Still, the creativity abounds.

• She knows that she’s different from most of her peers, and she suspects that these creatures will always keep her company, no matter how many or how few her human friends are.

• For better or for worse, each of these plushes plays an important role in her life.

So here we are. I love this child like mad. She has pried open my brain in ways I could never have imagined. And the wedges she has used are often these soft, cuddly, beguiling, bedeviling . . . things.

Shaken, Not Deterred

IMG_0119

See that picture? That’s my wife and my daughter (15) taking a walk. Oh, and our dog, Roxie. Do you know why I’m posting this picture? Not because I love these two (which, of course, I do), but because of how proud I am of my little girl. The fact that she is out on a walk shows how courageous she is.

You see, about four weeks ago, my daughter had a seizure. It was her first. Not a little tremor—a grand mal. You know, the kind where you’ve fallen to the floor convulsing, with your eyes wide open but seeing nothing. The kind where you can’t remember anything about it. The kind where you wake up as the paramedics are gently placing you on a stretcher and wheeling you into an ambulance. Terrifying stuff.

Then, ten days later, she had another one. The first one was in our house, but this one was out in public, at a food court. Again, it was a grand mal, and it lasted longer than the first one. Fortunately, I was there with her, so I knew to roll her onto her side, cradle her head, and wait it out. Again, she woke up, disoriented, to emergency personnel hovering around her.

So what does this have to do with the picture up there? Everything.

Overcoming “What If.”

Events like these would be traumatic for any adolescent girl; they can be positively paralyzing for a girl with ASD and anxiety disorder. The randomness of the seizures, the lack of memory, the waking up surrounded by strangers—it’s all so upsetting. The largest question that looms in her mind now is “What if?” What if I have another one? What if Mom and Dad aren’t around? What if it happens in front of my friends?

She’s on anticonvulsants now, and she hasn’t had a seizure in two weeks, but that doesn’t matter. The anxiety is so big, and the autistic tendency to perseverate is so strong, that the mere possibility of another event has kept her pretty much homebound ever since. She even missed an appointment with her counselor, whom she really likes.

Now do you see why this picture is so precious to me? Katie and I have convinced her that she needs to start getting out. We’re starting slowly, having her join us as we walk the dog in the mornings. And she’s doing it! She’s walking, she’s talking about everyday stuff, and she’s not perseverating over the seizures.

(The walking stick? That’s because she has mild scoliosis, and it helps her posture.)

Different Drums.

Now take a look at this picture.IMG_0120 Do you see that plush doll in the crook of her right arm? That’s Phantump, one of her favorite Pokémon characters. She is rarely separated from this creature, and when she is, she’s holding another one of the more than 100 she has collected over the years. They are her security blanket. They bring her comfort. They help her bridge the gap between the fantasy world she so enjoys and the real world, which is fraught with challenges and dangers.

So there’s my daughter, out in public with a walking stick and a plush Pokémon. While most girls her age are swooning over boys, preparing for their learner’s permit, and paying close attention to their appearance, here is my girl, walking to the beat of her own drum. She’s fighting her fears. She’s facing down her anxieties. She’s pushing through some things no fifteen-year-old should have to face. And she’s still standing.

There was a time when I’d object to the plush doll. “You’re a young woman now. For God’s sake, leave that thing behind!” There was a time when I’d try to force her to push through her fears more quickly than she was ready to do—usually to disastrous results. There was a time when I knew pretty much what I wanted her (and all my kids) to be, without paying too close attention to her unique personality. But if walking this autism path with my kids has taught me anything, it’s to throw away all of my expectations and to not care about how other people look at them. Those concerns were more about me than the kids, anyway.

So march on, girl! I don’t care if you need to take five Pokémon with you. I don’t care if you choose one of the most ornate, obvious, obnoxious walking sticks possible. Do whatever you need to do. Just keep moving forward. Today, it’s a walk with Mom, Dad, and Roxie. Next Sunday, it may be joining the whole family at Mass. Or maybe just part of Mass. Or maybe not yet. It doesn’t matter. Take it one step at a time, and we’ll be right there with you.

* These pictures, and this story, have been posted with the kind permission of my daughter (and, of course, my beautiful wife, Katie).

 

 

Dreaming of Heaven

Simpsons Heaven

Check out this article that appears on the website of America magazine. It’s lengthy and theological, but the author, Candida Moss, makes an excellent point. She talks about how disability is viewed in the Bible, and how a misunderstanding of the Christian tradition, by overemphasizing God’s healing power, can unwittingly place people with disability on the margins.

According to Moss, many of the healing stories in the Bible can be used to “reinforce the understanding that disability is a deviation from the way God intends us to live.” In other words, disability automatically equals defect. In some cases, it also means sin—or even demonic possession. So a person with a disability is in need of a cure, someone who needs to be made different than who he or she is before gaining entry into heaven.

As a counterbalance to this interpretation, Moss asks, “Can we find ourselves as ourselves in heaven? Can the view that God loves the disabled as they are be biblically sustained?” For answers, she turns to the story of the Doubting Thomas. After the resurrection, Jesus appeared to Thomas not as a completely restored person, but as one still bearing the marks of his crucifixion: “Jesus’ wounds are an integral part of his identity. It is by his wounds that he is recognized.” So “If God incarnate is known by his glorified impairments, why would we not hope for the same?”

No Cure Needed.

As I’ve written before, I have long had a strong gut reaction against the thought that you can pray the autism away. Autism is woven so finely into my kids’ identities that to take it away would be to unravel an essential part of who they are. I find it hard to believe that, in order to be made worthy of heaven, they would have to be unmade as autistic individuals. I find it hard to believe that all the things they have learned and become precisely because of their autism has little significance or value.

My kids have spent their entire lives as autistic individuals. To a large degree, autism has made them who they are. Their “otherness” has dramatically shaped the way they live, love, and function in the world. What’s more, they have taught numerous people (most especially Katie and me) valuable lessons about what it means to be human, to love, and to be loved. I would hate to think all of that has to be left behind once they enter heaven’s gates. Who would they even be then?

What Do I Want?

So what would it mean for my kids to find themselves as themselves in heaven? Here are a few things I would want to see.

  • I want them to be able to appreciate the world for the beautiful work of creation that it is. I want them to enjoy the sights and sounds and smells, the tastes and textures, of everything around them. And that means I want them to feel free to flap their hands, jump up and down, or react however they want to the beauty that will surround them.
  • I want them to be able to enjoy a quiet walk in the woods and not get scared by the rustlings of a busy forest. I want them to revel in the feel of sand between their toes and delight in the sound of the crashing waves—not run in terror of them.
  • I want them to feel free to share their unique, quirky insights without being mocked or marginalized. Heck, I want them to be free to share, period, and not be so anxious about communication that they can’t put a complete sentence together.
  • I want them to no longer feel the need to lash out or clam up or hurt themselves when they get overwhelmed. Or better yet, I want them not to ever have to feel overwhelmed again.
  • I want them to enjoy a world that accepts and treasures them for who they are. A world that doesn’t judge or sideline them because they are different. I want them to be in an environment where they don’t have to feel constrained or threatened by unnecessary expectations. A world where they can lose their anxiety over fitting in.

I’d Change the World for You.

Now, you’ll notice that some of these bullet points focus on my kids’ own healing and others focus on the world around them. And that is as it should be. For many of the challenges that my kids face come not from themselves or their unique neurologies. They come from a world tainted by sin and in need of renewal. They come because of the “structures of sin” that promote intolerance, ignorance, prejudice, and small-mindedness.

There’s a popular meme in the autistic community that says “I would not change you for the world, but I would change the world for you.” As a parent with two eyes, I know there are things in my kids that need to change—just as there are in me. But I also know that the world they are living in can be cold, cruel, and inhospitable to people who are different. And that’s the biggest change I’m anticipating.

So yes, I want to see my kids healed, and I believe they will be—of the selfishness and fear and pride that infects all of God’s people. But I don’t want them healed of their autism. I want them to remain the same loveable, quirky, autistic people that they are right now.

After all, that’s how God made them.

Conventional Wisdom

IMG_2492

Random participants at the 2016 Katsucon Convention.

So my 15-year-old girl had a lot of fun this Saturday. Her dream came true when we pulled up to the Gaylord Hotel outside of Washington, DC, for her first anime convention. She had been preparing for this for months, figuring out who she should dress as and then fretting over every little detail of her cosplay costume.

Of course, she didn’t go alone. Dutiful dad that I am, I joined her. I had checked out the group’s website, and found the dress code, which included such rules as “At least one inch of fabric over the nipples” and “All play weaponry must be concealed when you are outside the convention center.” I also saw that there were a number of panel discussions, ranging from “How to Sew Your Own Plush” to the late-night, age-restricted “Introduction to Japanese Bondage Techniques”—complete with demonstrations. Well, okay, then!

Anyway, from the moment we entered the convention hall, we were surrounded by people of all ages, shapes, sizes, colors, and gender configurations. Almost all of them were dressed as their favorite character from anime or sci-fi or fantasy or just about anything else. There were Pokémon, elves, storm troopers, satyrs, Halo soldiers, flying monkeys, creepers, and Splatoon squids. And many, many others. More than 15,000 of them. I was one of the few who hadn’t dressed up—just jeans, sneakers, and a sweatshirt. I guess I could have said I was going as Awkward Suburban Dad, but I would have needed some identifying totem, like a DirecTV remote or a Black & Decker power tool to make the costume believable.

IMG_2496

My girl, the Splatoon Inkling.

I didn’t know what my girl would want to do there for six whole hours. None of the panel discussions interested her, and the exhibit hall wasn’t all that big. But it turns out I didn’t have to worry. She knew exactly what she wanted to do. Apart from a half-hour in the exhibit hall, we spent most of the time wandering around the convention center and the hotel’s public spaces. She was so very excited to see everyone’s costumes, and she took pictures. Lots and lots of pictures. Her wandering wasn’t calculated, but it didn’t matter. We went here, then there, then back here, then over there, then back again. All the while, she kept cooing about how happy she was to be there.

Work the Crowd.

Then she got an idea, which she picked up from observing some veteran cosplayers. She found a spot in an open area in the busy hotel lobby and just stood there waiting for people to come and take her picture. It was quite a sight: she in her very simple, decidedly amateur, costume, flanked by a portly Japanese princess on one side and a svelte, leather-clad female vampire on the other.

I stood about 25 feet away so that I could keep a watchful eye on her but give her some freedom. Over the next hour, hundreds of people walked past, most of whom didn’t pay her any attention. A few people stopped to take her picture, and a couple of folks talked with her for a bit—including one young man from France whose friendliness prompted me to hover more closely. But overall, I was happy. “This is so good!” I thought. “My little girl is getting out there; she’s spreading her wings, taking risks, and enjoying it.”

IMG_2500

Not too close to my daughter, Frenchie!

From there, we moved to a different location, where she stood for another 90 minutes. Only this time, she didn’t just stand there. She began waving her gun in front of her, occasionally “shooting” at some of the passersby. She looked like a slo-mo version of those people who stand on the street corner twirling an advertising sign. And that worked a lot better. Not only did she get many more requests for pictures, but she also got other characters to interact with her—the Halo soldiers, for instance, shot back at her.

So my girl had a good day. So good, in fact, that she’s already planning her outfit for a similar gathering in August. I think Katie’s going to take that one, though. Once a year is enough for me!

Taking It in Stride.

So what did I think of the whole thing? It was eye-opening. I spent my Saturday surrounded by people with a passion for a subject that was almost completely foreign to me. It took a little getting used to—seeing grown men and women dressed up so exotically and play-acting as cartoon characters.

Looking around at all the elaborate, ultrageeky costumes, I was brought back to my earlier years, when I would have dismissed this whole thing as just a bunch of maladjusted, self-indulgent nerds lost in a synthetic fantasy world. “Get a life!” I would have said under my breath. And I most certainly would not have allowed my children to get involved in such arcane doings. But then I went ahead and had actual, real life kids. Kids with autism. Kids with different brains and different neurologies than mine. And as a result I have learned to take a load of supposed weirdness in stride. So no, it wasn’t all that odd for me. In fact, after the initial adjustment, it felt completely normal.

IMG_2491

“Don’t mind us. We’re just sitting on the floor of this hotel lobby being fabulous.”

One of Us.

One brief scene from the day cemented this for me, and it’s an image that I suspect will stay with me for a long, long time. During our wanderings, I caught sight of one fellow who looked like he was in his early twenties. He stood out in part because he wasn’t dressed up as anything—just jeans and a tee shirt. He was on the up escalator, and he was holding a plush Pokémon. All the way up the escalator, he was nuzzling the thing, smiling broadly at it, and talking excitedly to it. He flapped his hands occasionally and bounced happily on the balls of his feet. He looked so happy, I couldn’t help but smile.

That’s when it hit me. This was not some poor unfortunate soul to be pitied. This was a happy, adjusted man enjoying a day out on the town. He looked healthy and well fed. He had clothes on his back and shoes on his feet. His hair was mussed up but not unkempt. He was in the midst of a huge crowd navigating a virtual rabbit warren of meeting rooms, lobby spaces, and exhibit halls, but he showed no signs of anxiety or disorientation. He was having the time of his life. I realized I was looking at him not as “one of those,” whatever “those” might mean. He wasn’t an “other.” He wasn’t even part of a different tribe. We were both part of the same tribe. But it wasn’t that he had joined my tribe and become “one of us.” Somehow, over the years of watching and learning from my kids, I had joined his tribe.

I was one of his.

A Breach of Trust at The Mount

IMGP4810

Take a look at this article from The Washington Post. It covers a controversy that has been roiling the campus of my alma mater, Mount St. Mary’s University, in Emmitsburg, MD, for the past few months. It seems that the newly-installed president initiated a survey for all freshmen to take early in their first semester. It was presented to the students as a way of helping them get to know themselves better as they transition from high school to college, and to help them understand better “the person you are and could become.” Fair enough. Everyone likes taking personality inventories and surveys like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. It’s helpful to know what instruments like this tell you as you begin your academic career.

Only that’s not what the survey was really about. It was designed to help the university identify which students were at the greatest risk of dropping out so that administrators could encourage these students to leave early in the semester. And it was done in the hopes of boosting the school’s retention rate, thereby getting it better ratings in places like the US News ranking. The information in the survey was meant to be shared and discussed, not just scored and returned to the students for them discuss with their advisors.

Probing, Inappropriate Questions.

Now, the misrepresentation of the survey’s purpose is bad enough, but what’s worse is the fact that some of the questions are one-sided and not really related to its stated goal. Have you experienced a death in the family in the past year? Are you taking on major student loans? I don’t see how questions like these can help the students come to know themselves better.

But wait—it gets worse. An entire section of the survey is dedicated to the student’s mental health. They are asked how strongly they identify with statements like: In the past week . . . I felt depressed. I felt that people disliked me. I thought my life had been a failure. These are very personal questions, and the students should never be asked to divulge this kind of information—especially in a survey that is not kept confidential. They are also asked if they think they are calm and emotionally stable. Can they be trusted with money? Are they a hard worker? Have they been obsessed with a certain idea or project and then lost interest?

Then comes the final indignity. The closed-ended section of the survey ends with a question that comes out of the blue: Do you have a learning disability?

Seriously?

A Breach of Trust.

The best word I can find to describe the survey and its intended use is repugnant. Targeting for removal students who report feeling unstable is bad enough, but then expecting them to divulge whether they have a learning disability crosses several lines.

First, a student with a disability has the right not to disclose that disability to the school. At all. Ever. It is no one else’s business except the student’s—and anyone to whom he or she wishes to reveal it. It’s like Federal HIPAA guidelines; this information is protected by law.

Second, if a student does disclose a disability, the school is obligated to work with that student to determine the appropriate “academic adjustments” that will ensure that he or she is given an equal education opportunity. While not as stringent as the IEP process for elementary and high school students, the Americans with Disabilities Act lays out specific requirements for colleges—at least for those colleges, like Mount St. Mary’s, that accept government funding.

Finally, the school is obligated to keep this disclosure confidential. A teacher may not tell other teachers or students without the student’s permission. An advisor may not tell the president or dean. Again, it’s up to the student to decide who should know and to inform the appropriate people.

Elite Enclaves?

What is disturbing in this story is the implication that someone with a learning disability doesn’t belong in college. Or that someone struggling with anxiety or depression should drop out. It turns colleges—especially small, private ones like The Mount—into enclaves for the elite and privileged, for the well-adjusted and socially savvy.

But there are plenty of people with disabilities and disturbances who are more than capable of succeeding in higher education. What’s more, plenty of these people have the potential to go on and do great things with their lives—and great things for the people around them. Robin Williams comes to mind. So does Theodore Roosevelt. Or Charles Shulz. And, of course, Temple Grandin.

Not to mention, the presence of students who “deviate from the norm” is a great gift to any campus. Not to get too maudlin, but students like these challenge their peers’ assumptions and prejudices. They redefine the word “ability” for their teachers. They are a humanizing influence, opening people’s minds and hearts at a time in their lives when they are making crucial decisions about the kind of person they want to be.

I have children who would absolutely bomb on this survey, but who are earning As and Bs in high school. How would they fare? Or worse, what would they think of themselves when asked all of these questions? I hope they would have the common sense to either lie or leave them unanswered. I would be thrilled if they had the courage to challenge the whole thing and refuse to answer a single question. But I don’t know how they would respond. I can’t help but think of how questions like the ones above could convince someone that he or she really doesn’t belong . . . when it’s just not the case.

Praying for a Turn-Around.

I spent four wonderful years at The Mount. I graduated Summa Cum Laude and went on to earn a masters degree and pursue a meaningful, successful career in Catholic ministry and publishing. Much of that I owe to the education I received there and to the spirit of camaraderie and Christian charity I experienced there. But the first semester of my freshman year was hell. I was homesick and depressed. I felt overwhelmed by the work load. I started off in a dorm room with obnoxious, mean-spirited roommates. I didn’t know how to navigate the social mores of a college campus. It took me a while to adjust, to find my niche, and to settle in. Once I did adjust, however, there was no stopping me.

I would have failed that survey; I would have been encouraged to leave. But that didn’t happen. There were enough faculty and upperclassmen who knew how to help freshmen like me find their way. They embodied the best of The Mount—and the best of the Catholic faith. It saddens me deeply to see this happening at an institution that means so much to me. I can only pray that things will turn around soon.

Lots of Snowflakes

IMG_2449

My next stop was the enchanting kingdom of Arendelle, where I visited Queen Elsa. Like the other people I spoke with, she was very happy to record a message to kids on the autism spectrum. She got it right away when I explained why I was asking her to do this. You see, Elsa has special, unique abilities that most people didn’t understand, and this made her feel like an outcast. She was even denounced as a “monster” by the Duke of Weselton. She hid away for years, staying in the shadows, because she was afraid of her powers, which she couldn’t control. She also stayed in hiding because of how guilty she felt for having accidentally hurt her sister, Anna.

As you can see, Elsa was living under a dark cloud of oppression—much of it undeserved. I told her that many kids on the autism spectrum can feel that way as well. They can stand out from the crowd. They can feel as if they are too different from the people around them. Even worse, those things that make them different can overwhelm them and make them say or do hurtful things. Like Elsa, they can be bound up in guilt and fear. Some even build a colorful, imaginative world of their own, a refuge from the world where they are free to be themselves. But like Elsa’s ice castle, this refuge can turn into a prison as they remain isolated from the people who love them.

Elsa thought that her castle would protect her. She thought that it would be the one place where she express everything unique and awesome about herself. But then the outside world came crashing in. She became a prisoner of people who didn’t understand, people who didn’t love, and that made her more miserable than before.

It took an act of true love to finally set Elsa free—her sister Anna’s complete acceptance of her and her willingness to sacrifice her own life to protect her. That was the key. Knowing how much she was loved helped her lose all the negative thoughts she had had about herself—all the fear and guilt and isolation that was swirling around inside of her.

The best part about Elsa’s story is that her freedom didn’t mean that she became “normal” like everyone else. She was still the same shy young woman with a unique talent. But because she was surrounded by love, she learned how to harness that talent and use it for good. She let go of the bad stuff and embraced the good. And because of that, she was no longer subject to her powers; now they were subject to her. In the end, Elsa was free to be the one-of-a-kind person she always was. And that’s what she wanted to share with everyone.

Words for the Warriors

Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 10.03.31 PM

Sorry about the low resolution. The sun was setting.

After visiting Aladdin and Jasmine in Agrabah, I hopped over to China to spend some time with Mulan. Because of the time difference, it was evening already. When I asked her if she would record a video message for kids on the autism spectrum, she told me she was delighted to do it. “But why me?” she asked. So I explained.

After spending years preparing for, and dreading, the role that everyone expected of her—that of a demur, domestic housewife—Mulan felt like a failure. “Why is my reflection someone I don’t know?” she wondered. It frustrated her to feel that she couldn’t live up to people’s expectations. Looking at the world around her, she wasn’t sure where she fit in or if she would fit in at all. She wanted to be herself, but she was afraid how people would react. She was afraid, too, that she would have no future unless she became someone she wasn’t.

But then war came, and Mulan’s aged father was ashamed that he couldn’t help defend his homeland. Mulan saw her opportunity and, like Joan of Arc, she disguised herself as a soldier and took his place. After an awkward start, Mulan blossomed into a confident, self-possessed woman and led an army into battle against the Huns. Finally free to be the person she always had been, Mulan saved her kingdom and restored honor to her family’s name. Not bad at all!

I explained this to Mulan and told her how similar her story is to many people on the autism spectrum. Like her, many of them are frustrated or feel inferior because they don’t fit most people’s expectations. They may not talk. They may not be interested in sports. They may prefer to spend time cataloguing their bug collection instead of going to a birthday party. People might call them “awkward” or “quirky” or far worse. Feeling like they don’t fit in, they may be tempted to give up on their dreams. I told her they needed to think of themselves as warriors willing to fight negative stereotypes. They needed to become strong so that they could make a difference in the world. And they needed the inner strength to look at their reflection and see just how awesome they really are.

Hearing all of this, Mulan was more than happy to record the video. In fact, she was downright eager to tell talk about how it’s okay to be different—as long as you’re true to yourself. She told them . . . well, see for yourself.