My son is so exceptional it's breaking my heart

He's mildly autistic and very, very bright -- what can I do to help him fit in?


Cary Tennis
November 30, 2004 12:08AM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

I am the mother of a 15-year-old boy with a mild degree of autism. He is kind, handsome, and very, very bright. Because his fixations (primarily with music) caused him to be singled out and relentlessly bullied in the public schools, I started home-schooling him several years ago, and he has made amazing progress. He is studying the things any other high school student would study: classic literature, algebra, biology, French...

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And yet...

He is still "different," and it becomes painfully obvious when he tries to participate in the world outside our home. Because he hasn't mastered some of the subtle social cues that most of us take for granted, he has a hard time fitting into social and work settings. He has a few friends who share his love for music, and they are allowed to come to our house pretty much anytime to record songs on my son's computer, and he likes playing pickup basketball games at a local community gym.

But the other day, my son was "fired" from a volunteer internship at a local television station where he has worked as a camera operator for about a year. The director was kind, and said that he had done nothing wrong, but that the "hurry up and wait" atmosphere of taping shows made it difficult for my son to remember all his cues, since he has been using his down time to write song lyrics (his biggest fixation). The director wasn't open to reconsidering, even if I promised not to send my son's notebook and pencil with him. This just hurt me right to the marrow of my soul. My son has always had a gift for operating and fixing machinery, and I thought that working a camera would be the perfect opportunity for him to use that gift and to interact with new people in a nonthreatening environment.

I have a good marriage, a daughter with whom I have a close and wonderful relationship, a job that I love with flexible hours that allow me to home-school my son, and a life that many people would envy. But I feel that if I can't prepare my son to function in the world, I will have failed him in the worst possible way. How can I get past this hurt so I can get back on track?

A Loving Mom

Dear Loving Mom,

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What a remarkable boy he must be! I hope he takes getting fired in stride. After all, along the way to finding out what we're supposed to be doing with our lives, many of us end up getting fired for one thing or another. It's nothing to be ashamed of. At 15, he's just a little ahead of most kids.

And it's not surprising it happened. It's very telling, actually. The way I look at it, it's those of us with unusual strengths in one area or another -- call it genius, call it borderline autism -- who are most likely to find ourselves in challenging situations. We can handle the difficult and complex; it's the easy stuff that trips us up. He could handle the camera fine -- he just happened to be writing song lyrics during the downtime!

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In other words, he wasn't paying attention. Paying attention is the low-level skill they teach you in the mental-processing factories we call public schools. I remember what would happen if, like Proust or Beethoven, one were to drift off in class and imagine vast and complex worlds. Hey! You! Pay attention! Your attention -- your consciousness -- is the currency of the classroom; you open your head like a wallet and pay your attention to authority. In return, you are released for a few hours at the end of the day. If you do not pay enough attention, you must pay later with your body; you must remain behind the walls. But it doesn't make much difference even if you are released on your own recognizance; having paid out so much attention, you're broke anyway. Your head is empty; your soul is gone. Thus they empty you and fill you; it's the ultimate horror of control.

So I stand up and cheer your decision to home-school this boy! I know you must fear for his ability to fit into society, but I applaud you for not crushing him.

I note that you wisely differentiate between his technical skills and his interpersonal skills. It's not his technical ability that got him fired; he's just not well adapted to that particular kind of stress. To make an analogy, say you took a brilliant conductor like Michael Tilson Thomas, and you said, here's the job: You conduct the symphony orchestra as usual, except whenever it suits us, and for varying lengths of time, we're going to pause to adjust our ties and put makeup on, and discuss, in hushed tones, certain matters of no relevance to you. You won't have any control over when we pause, or for how long, but we expect you to be able to pick up exactly where you left off, when you hear a shouted command. (Plus, just for effect, the auditorium will be filled with green Jell-O!)

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Stuff like that can throw you off, no matter how talented you are. So please, know in your heart that he is an amazing boy. This was just a learning experience. If you find that the experience has made him afraid to undertake similar activities, you might have to back up a little and let him get some social successes under his belt again. Perhaps he can continue his work with cameras, but under conditions with fewer distractions. Perhaps he can make some movies at home with his friends, where he has more control over the flow of work. But do not despair. You are doing a great job. With a mother like you, I think he's a very lucky boy. (Since this is the Thanksgiving season, I will meditate upon this as an occasion for boundless gratitude.)

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