Today on World Autism Awareness Day I would like to say that we all have much to learn from autistic people. Aside from the day-to-day challenges presented by parenting a child with autism — the tantrums, the noise, the frustrations — one thing I really appreciate about my son Harrison is his attitude of non-conformity.
It’s not just that he refuses to conform with many societal norms and expectations, but that he does so comfortably with no concerns for what other people think. Now this sometimes causes problems and embarrassment at school, in public places and even at home because of his difficulties sorting out impulsive behaviors from constructive ones. But that is also part of the autistic mind and something I hope improves with age.
I’m writing from the standpoint of someone who has not exactly lived a life of conformity, and perhaps I am somewhere on The Spectrum myself. I’ve never had a normal job (No, editing and writing for newspapers does not count as a normal job). I write, edit, take pictures and care for animals for a living. I’ve chosen to live in a rural mountain setting. And I’ve pursued a longtime passion for racing burros to the top of high mountain passes. But I can’t say I’ve been totally comfortable with all these choices. There’s always a nagging voice in the back of my mind asking me if I’m doing the right thing, telling me it would be safer to run with the herd. At the base of all this is some concern about what others think, fear of judgment and fear of the future. Mind chatter.
So while I have been able to make these choices I can’t say I’ve always been totally comfortable with all of them. It’s a struggle with the mind. Sometimes I question my lack of regular paycheck, reliable retirement, and the long commute to the grocery, though I know these are the prices I pay for relative freedom, doing work I value, and living in a wild setting. I can walk out my door and be running on a trail in five minutes.
Harrison on the other hand, seems totally comfortable with his choices to be himself. This often manifests in refusing to do his homework, which I sometimes view as as an avoidance behavior founded in self-preservation. What exactly is this school work preparing him for, anyway? Life in a cubicle? Instead he’s more likely to put all his energy and focus into understanding the inner workings of a door closer or learning to ride his bike. He’s comfortable with his choices because he simply lives in the present and really does not care that much about what anybody else thinks.
It makes me wonder if more of us shouldn’t be more like that. What type of world would we live in if more people paid attention to their present lives, and followed their interests and passions with reckless disregard for what other people think? Maybe today we should thank Harrison and other autistic people for helping us understand more about our own journeys, as well as theirs.