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.
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.