unwrapping the gifts


It is October of 2008.

I am sitting across the table from John Robison, having dinner. It is the first time we have met. He is speaking about the “gifts” of autism. He is telling me that he knows that with “little ones like [mine] it can be hard to spot the gifts, unlike it is with adults like [him.], where they are far more obvious.” I am working hard not to be defensive. He is, as far as I can see, nothing like my daughter. He has Asperger’s. She has classic autism. He speaks beautifully, eloquently articulating his experiences and sharing his inner world. She struggles to find words for her most basic needs.

My child speaks in scripts. Novel language is almost non-existent. She repeats sounds, echos the ends of words. Her ability to parrot what she’s heard is almost eerie, but doesn’t do her a whit of good in making herself understood. I can only guess at the internal workings of her magnificent brain, at what she thinks, feels, likes, wants.

I watch her fight day-to-day, moment-to-moment. To communicate, to interact, sometimes, to just BE amid the sensory onslaught of a world that is too bright, too loud, too chaotic and far, far too unpredictable. We spend a lot of our time frustrated. And heartbroken. None of these are gifts.

But John’s conviction in his assertion leaves little room for debate. If he says there are gifts, so there must be, says his delivery. I want to believe him, but “gifts” feel like a hell of a stretch. “They might even look like challenges now,” he says.

Frankly, I’m not even sure I know what that means.

It is November of 2009.

All three of the Wilson women (one big, two small) are down with the Swine flu when I get a call from the girls’ elementary school principal. She’s sorry to bother me over the Thanksgiving break she says, but there’s something she simply must share. I will later write the story that she tells me.

The week before Thanksgiving, there had been an all-school assembly. The stage had been set up with a microphone to address the students. Brooke and her aide had apparently gotten to the auditorium a few minutes early and little miss had found the microphone.

The principal said that as people made their way to the assembly, they were stopped in their tracks just outside the auditorium. ‘This little voice was just so incredibly clear,” she said. A buzz began to gather steam in the hallway.

“Is that Brooke?”

“Doesn’t that sound like little Brooke?”

“That’s got to be her.”

Inside, a little girl stood on the empty stage. She sang into the microphone, loud and clear. And if I know my kid, right on key.

The song was the one they’ve been learning in music class. Of course it was. What else could it possibly have been? It’s just too perfect.

This little light of mine.

I’m gonna let it shine.

Let it shine.

Let it shine.

Let it shine.

Shine on, my sweet girl, I will write. Shine on.

It is September of 2012.

I am writing our annual Back To School letter to both new and returning staff. I include the following:

[Brooke] has taken to watching her Nick Jr shows (most notably Dora and Blue’s Clues) in French and Spanish. She loves to tell people that she speaks Spanish, and well, she kinda does. We look forward to encouraging her emerging love of languages. She has picked up a startling amount of Spanish from Dora. 

It is  November of 2013.

Ms J tells us that Brooke has auditioned for a solo in choir. She says that as soon as Ms S made the announcement that the kids could come up and try singing alone, Brooke’s hand shot into the air. She tells us that Brooke sang the song that they’d been working on for the concert — which was in Hebrew. I am not even mildly surprised by the news, but I can’t stop smiling.

It is a week or so later.

Luau and I are at the school for a meeting with Brooke’s support team. We find out just a moment too late that Brooke is in the auditorium for Music class. As soon as we peek in the door, the kids begin filing out. One by one, nearly all the girls who pass us say some version of the same thing. “Did you see her?? Brooke was awesome!!”

We missed it by a minute. Ms S had asked for volunteers to audition for the solo for another song. This one was in Spanish.

It is December of 2013.

I am in Texas on a business trip when I get an email from my girl. Newly instituted in her IEP, these emails come every day now. Ms J’s brilliant way of including Brooke in the daily communication log, they have become an incredible learning tool, and, for me, the very best part of the day.

Hi Mama,

I had chorus today. I found out I got to be a soloist for the concert. I was so excited to find out. I did not have kids connections with Ms C because she was sick. How are you doing? What is your high? What is your low? That means what is your favorite part of the day and your not favorite part of the day. Talk to you later.



I will write  back, “Oh baby, THIS is definitely my high!”

It is October of 2008.

I am trying desperately to believe John when he says that there are gifts in my daughter’s autism. That they might be presenting themselves as challenges. I’m trying, but no matter how hard I try, I just don’t see them. Everything is a challenge. How can a challenge BE a gift? It’s like a bad riddle.

I have no idea that much like the image in a stereogram (those plays on visual perspective that we all remember from childhood in which you could only see the picture within the seemingly random pattern once you managed to relax your eyes), the gifts of which John speaks really are right in front of me. I just have to stop trying so hard to find them. I have to relax my eyes, open my ears, unclench my fists, and, above all, rely on my heart to show me what I need to see. Then and only then, will the image emerge from the chaos, deeper, richer, and more beautiful than anything I could have imagined. And right there all along.

Oh, and that picture up top? It’s a shark.

Ed note: Thanks to Fred Hsu for allowing me to share his beautiful image.

34 thoughts on “unwrapping the gifts

  1. Amazingly, I remember back to all of this. Brooke has always been an amazing child. It’s wonderful to see that so many people (even children) are recognizing her myriad of gifts.

    Love you,

  2. I love this story. Thank you for sharing it! I am finding many gifts that my son has…where before I struggled to see how they could be anything more than quirks.

  3. I remember thinking the same thing when my son spent a large amount of his time twirling and turning lights off and on whenever he could find a switch. He sang on tune, as well. And although my daughter could speak, there were always missing words in her sentences, along with atypical word order. But someone also told me to look for the gifts. And my son is now a computer programmer and my older daughter is now an accountant looking for a full time regular job.

  4. Your post today reminds me of a quote from the commencement address Steve Jobs gave at Stanford in 2005. “[Y]ou can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” It’s that trust, that faith, that can be so hard for me. Thank you for giving me proof, again, to believe in it.

      • Knowing where it is would not help with stereograms. You have to be able to look behind it, through it, like it is a window. Or, when you master the technique, to turn your eyes out (this happens naturally when looking far) until two segments overlap and re-merge.

        The best way to do it the first time is to have the image behind glass and then make sure something reflects in the glass, and look at the reflection.

        You do have to have fairly similar vision in both eyes, and typical depth perception.

        I saw the shark before I read the post. 🙂 I love stereograms. My cousin, though, can never see them, because he does not have depth perception because his eyes do not work together. 3-d glasses would also not work for the same reason.

  5. i’m always put off by discussions of autism and “gifts”, even with aspergers. except when i read your posts…you and your sweet one always make me a believer.

  6. I will always remember the OT who told me that the fact that my 3 1/2 year was reading was irrelevant as “it’s not functional”. I perhaps was less than diplomatic when I replied that he was able to follow instructions if I wrote them out for him “so it seemed pretty functional to me!” It’s infuriating when the “professionals” dismiss the gifts that our children have. I’m so happy that Brooke is in a place that appreciates her and lets her shine. Good luck to her in her solos, and thank you for writing so beautifully.

    • One of my greatest frustrations in life is this constant failure of so many so-called experts to look beyond their narrow and absurdly rigid definitions of functional behavior, thereby missing out on so many opportunities to foster our kids strengths. Not to mention that the irony kills me. I’m so glad you were able to see the OT’s advice for what it was so early on. It takes many of us, me included, a lot longer to ‘get’ it. 😉

  7. It is SO important to find and note the gifts! If for nothing else, so we can point them out to our kids, so that their being different isn’t all depressing. You are the BEST at reminding us to look for those silver linings. My boy is closer to me and more loving than his siblings in part because peer relationships don’t compete. And doing RDI with him to help with his autism ended up creating a close relationship because of all the playing we did and fun we had. And there are gifts; he may not read a room socially, but he can go to an art museum and explain to me why he thinks the curator hung particular pieces together, and notices all these different perspectives I wouldn’t otherwise see, and make connections others overlook. And he can communicate with animals. And he is so appreciative of the things we have in common, interests and faults; typical teens want to distances themselves.

  8. Some people have gifts. Brooke has at least two; a singing voice and a gift for spoken sounds without regard for the source language.

    Some people have deficits. I have NEVER been able to see the hidden object in the type of ‘picture’ at the top of this entry.

    But I guess Brooke has deficits, too. …and I have gifts.

    Screw the deficits. Celebrate the gifts. Yay!

    • yes! yes! yes! EVERY single one of us has challenges and EVERY single one us has strengths. Screw the deficits. Celebrate the gifts! Wonder if we can get that on a t-shirt? 🙂

      • Two week delivery from customink.com for less than $25/T-shirt. I’d send them but I don’t know your sizes, color choices, or address 🙂 ((((HUGS)))) (Can Brooke tolerate hugs? My son could but my grandson cannot.)

  9. Parents of neurotypical kids are always looking for their kids’ gifts. Why shouldn’t parents of autistic kids? If you’re presuming competence, you will most certainly see your childrens gifts. Thank you for the reminder. And thank you for not being one of those “autistic kids are magical and all autistic kids are savants” kind of moms. Our kids have gifts because every human on this earth has gifts (although the gifts my kids have are far different than mine, and are much more amazing than any gift I possess).

    • I love this comment. I needed a reminder that it is actually OK for me to look for, see, talk about and nurture my autistic children’s gifts. I am not presuming they are savants, I’m just being a mom presuming competence and seeing gifts. Thank you.

  10. For the longest time my shark had a weird growth on its head. It took me a while to stop trying so hard and just let it be. Now it looks like a shark. Point taken.

    Your blog was listed on the newsletter from my son’s ABA center! Hopefully everyone will enjoy reading it every day like I do.

  11. This morning, when my minimally-verbal seven-year-old daughter was lying on the floor, holding her iPad above her with her feet, watching a Nick Jr. show in Spanish (as she does), I thought of you and Brooke and smiled.

  12. Yes! I believe this so much. I try to have my girls participate in things that bring out their gifts. Hana and Helen both are really great at singing. Helen is also gifted at picking up and learning instruments. You should see her on the drums. So glad that Brooke went for it and succeeded. I am sure she will be amazing!

  13. I LOVE this post. I see so much of my daughter in your descriptions of Brooke. It is interesting to me because it helps make this abstract thing seem more concrete & clear to me at times, when there often are so many similarities among our children. We are relatively new to this whole journey, my daughter Makayla is almost 3 & it’s encouraging & exciting to imagine & see the ways she will continue to amaze us, much like Brooke. Your daughter is so amazing (actually both of them are!). Thank you so much for sharing your wonderful family, your writing & your experiences & perspective. It’s MUCH appreciated : )
    Oh by the way, I absolutely cannot see the shark either!

  14. Dang it! Now my makeup is running down my face! I LOVE this! I too am hoping one day I look back & can see all the “gifts” that were right there all along.

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