Thinking about the autism spectrum — and what you can do — might make you feel more hopeful

Ido in AustismlandThe news can easily make one feel terribly hopeless.  The world is boiling, and we seem to lack direction.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that America has been in the past a very resilient nation; that there’s sometimes a virtue to shaking things up simply because change is inevitable, so let’s get it all over with at once; that people at home and abroad are beginning to appreciate that America was never an Evil Empire, but was always a force for freedom and stability; and that ordinary Americans are seeing what socialist policy — economic, international, and societal — looks like, and they’re not pleased with what they see.

Here’s the other good news:  There is always hope.  Otherwise, why bother?  Without hope, why bother reading the news?  Why bother writing about the things we want to change?  Why bother thinking, voting, talking, working, or even getting up in the morning?  Things can and do change, and we who are hopeful have a responsibility to do whatever we can — to contribute whatever skill we have — to fulfill that hope by changing the political and social dynamic.

Since 2008, hope has been an overused and misused word.  To begin with, it’s not a thing in and of itself.  Only very shallow people believe that you can elect something called “hope.”  Instead, “hope” is a very special human emotion that motivates us to leap over seemingly insurmountable barriers and face off against despair, all the while embracing behaviors that lead to increased individual and national freedom, self-reliance, and prosperity.

And while I’m on the subject of hope — real hope, not the politically-packaged pabulum — I’d like to take a moment to talk about families dealing with relatives who fall within the autism spectrum.  Ido Kedar is one of those people.  I’ve known Ido for a long time, although not as well as I could wish.  Mother Nature gave Ido what appears to be a raw deal:  His autism leaves his maturing brain in a body that responds to his wishes only with the greatest effort.  He’s almost non-verbal, impulse control is an issue, his spatial awareness is limited, and coordination is a problem.  On the plus side, though, he is endowed with a brilliant brain; a strong moral compass; hypersensitive senses, which means that, even though he can be easily overwhelmed, he sees, hears, tastes, smells, and touches a world of beauty denied to the rest of us; and a fierce drive to connect with the world which has enabled him overcome so many of his deficits.

If you read Ido’s autobiography, Ido in Autismland: Climbing Out of Autism’s Silent Prison, you see that he isn’t just the physical embodiment of the abstract word “hope.”  He doesn’t introduce himself to you by saying, “You can call me Hope.”  Ido is, instead, a person whose parents never lost faith in him and a person who always had faith in his own abilities. That faith gave them the emotion that is hope, and that emotion in turn gave them the energy to search, research, act, practice, and excel.

Ido is not unique. There are many other young people (and their families) in the autism spectrum who never give up. They take their belief in future possibilities and turn that into present action. One of the institutions that actively helps them with this (instead of just mouthing “hope”) is the Friendship Circle . . . which is having a fundraiser Bike Raffle. If you know someone with autism, or someone who lives with or cares for an autistic person, and you feel like contributing to the cause, this is certainly a nice way to do it.

For more information, check out Raising Asperger’s Kids.

 

Finding your spark of genius

Albert EinsteinIn the post immediately preceding this one, I spoke about American gypsy girls who are steered into young marriage, followed immediately by a career as a homemaker, no matter their talents.  There’s nothing wrong with being a wonderful mother and homemaker, but one does wonder, of course, whether those girls were deprived of the opportunity to discover a hidden talent within themselves.

I’ve been thinking about the whole “hidden talent” thing a lot lately.  It’s been a part of my thinking for years, actually, ever since my sister went to college.  Her first boyfriend there grew up in a small farming community and was the first person in his family to go to college.  When he got to college, he was required to take his first ever language class.  He chose French, which is where he met my sister.  She was also taking German, as a continuation of her high school studies.

Over the course of just one semester, my sister’s boyfriend became fluent not only in French, which he was actively learning, but in German, which he was passively absorbing, both from my sister’s studies and from my parents German-language conversations.  It turned out that, when it came to languages, he was savant, and could learn any language with passable fluency over the course of a few months.  Had he stayed home on the farm, it’s likely this gift would have remained dormant forever.  As it was, within two years of meeting my sister, he was one of six American college students selected to go on a special Russian language program to the Soviet Union.

I thought of this guy just last week, when my high-school-aged son came home from his first day in art class at school.  He’s never had an art class before, but he brought home an incredibly good representation of his own hand, meticulously worked in 3D.  He didn’t need lessons in perspective; he instinctively understood it.  Had he not been required to take this class as a prerequisite for graduating, he might never have known he has this gift.

And in this same vein, I’d like to recommend a bad, but wonderful documentary.  The documentary is called “Blood Brother,” and it’s playing on PBS.  The young man who made the documentary focuses on his friend, an almost paralyzingly ordinary boy from Pittsburgh, who did wonderful things.  The documentary is bad because it’s poorly constructed, poorly photographed, poorly narrated, poorly everything . . . but it’s still worth watching.

The ordinary young man is Robin “Rocky” Braat.  Rocky grew up in a dysfunctional home, suffered terrible abuse at the hands of his mother’s many boyfriends, got shunted to his grandparents for a few years, and then ended up with his father.  He describes himself as a kid who was so bad in school, he was “marginally retarded.”  When he speaks, he has the slurred, dull cadences of a stoner (although there’s no indication that he is, in fact, a stoner).

Rocky was aimless.  He had a short attention span, and felt that there was nothing for him in Pittsburgh.  He decided for no reason whatsoever to go to India, because he wanted to go someplace “authentic” (although why Pittsburgh, in its own way, isn’t as “authentic” as anyplace else in the world, I do not know).  Once there, Rocky came upon an orphanage.  What makes this orphanage unique is that all of the children and all of the staff have HIV.  Rocky had found his place on this earth.

Although Rocky readily admits that he didn’t like children when he arrived at that orphanage, there was something about the children there that called to him.  Watching the boundless love he feels for them, and the equally boundless love they return to him, is incredibly moving.

The best part of the documentary comes at the end, so you have to stick with it or, if you have it on TiVo, fast forward a bit.  One of the HIV-infected boys, a kid maybe 9 or 10, ends up in the hospital with God knows what.  His skin is a festering, bleeding, peeling mass; his eyes are so crusted and white they look like a corpse’s; he’s coughing his lungs out from tuberculous; and his kidneys are shutting down.  The child looks gangrenous and he’s in an Indian hospital in a remote region where care is minimal and death a certainty.

Rocky cares for that child as if the boy is his own flesh and blood.  Wearing only gloves to product his hands, he bathes the boy’s endless wounds, oils his broken skin, cleans his oozing eyes, and holds him as he cries in pain.  It is an outpouring of selfless love that would make Mother Teresa proud.

It turns out that, when it comes to caring for HIV-infected children in a remote region of India, Rocky is a savant.  Had he stayed in Pittsburgh, he would have been nothing.  If he worked, he would have had a low-level job.  He probably would have drunk too much on weekends, and wasted his days away in a haze of bad television, cheap food, and a kind of nagging existential despair.  Instead, because he wanted something more, he found himself.

One of the blessings of living in America is that so many of us have the opportunity to explore different pathways in life.  Maybe we’ll just have a variety of experiences that we’ll talk about later (and boast about when we’re old).  But for the lucky ones, their travels in America will introduce them to the genius within themselves.

Best flash mob ever!

You always read that something is the “best flash mob ever,” and many really do seem to live up to that billing.  Orchestras play beautiful music, dancers swirl across the floor, and people break into song as if they’re living in a 1930s Hollywood musical.

This particular flash mob, however, is truly the best one ever.  Not only is the performance delightful on its own terms, but its context raises it to amazing new heights of flash mob-ness.

To enjoy it fully, think about these facts before you start watching:

Irving BerlinIn 1893, five-year-old Israel Isidore Beilin and his family arrived in New York, having escaped the terrible anti-Jewish pogroms in Russia. After surviving (and, indeed, thriving in) a childhood of extreme poverty in New York’s Lower East Side, he grew up to become Irving Berlin, one of the most successful songwriters of all time.  He was also a man who never lost his sense of gratitude for the wonders of his adopted country, a sentiment he expressed perfectly in “God Bless America.” He wrote other songs celebrating American life, everything from Easter, to white Christmases, to the wonders of New Yorkers “Puttin’ on the Ritz” (written in 1929, right before the Roaring 20s came to a whimpering end).

Soviet May Day paradeIn 1917, the Soviets took over Russia, and settled in for a seventy year totalitarian run. America was the enemy and American culture a dangerous weapon that had to be banned from the Soviet Union at all costs.

And then, in February 2012, a young couple got married on a cold day in Moscow and their friends put on a most amazing show for them. Enjoy the show, and don’t forget the history as you watch it.

Happiness is a moral obligation, says Dennis Prager

Smiley-FaceI couldn’t agree more with the principle that happiness is a moral obligation (an argument Dennis Prager makes at length in the excellent Happiness Is a Serious Problem: A Human Nature Repair Manual). I often tell the children, when the describe mean kids at their school that those children are more to be pitied than censured. Happy people, I point out, aren’t mean. Someone mean must be very unhappy. Give them a wide berth, but don’t add to their misery.

As for me, I’m trying to be happy, despite having misread a contract I signed, and having inadvertently signed on to a more expensive project than I intended. I’m reminding myself that, on the information available, this service provider is still the best in the market (a market sadly marked by a lot of shoddy work), but I’m feeling dumb. It was, after all, a stupid mistake. We’ll still get what we want, but not on the terms I thought. Sigh.

Happy thoughts. Happy thoughts.

It’s not Christmas at the Bookworm Room without Josh Groban’s “O Holy Night”

As is the case every year, I have so much for which I am thankful. When my children ask me what I want for Christmas, I never have an answer, because I already have everything I need or want (although they could empty the dishwasher more often). One of the gifts in my life is all of you, so thank you so much for becoming my friends through this site.

Merry Christmas!

Ido Kedar — author of “Ido in Autismland” — is profiled in the L.A. Times

Ido KedarLast year, I reviewed Ido Kedar’s Ido in Autismland: Climbing Out of Autism’s Silent Prison. It is a very important book, since it turns on its head all of the conventional wisdom about non-verbal autism.  Because of his book, Ido has rightly become a big deal amongst people affected by autism, a group that includes autistic people, their families, and their teachers.

Ido’s increasingly high profile caught the eye of a L.A. Times reporter who spent several months interviewing Ido, his family, and those who have worked with and gotten to know him.  The result is a glowing profile in the L.A. Times which really gives an insight into the overwhelming and often very beautiful world that Ido inhabits:

Autism, Ido says, is like being on LSD, something he learned about in health class, and his experience in the world can be at times terrifying and overwhelming. Sensory minutiae that in other people are filtered and organized, collide indiscriminately in his brain. Feelings of anger, sadness, even silliness can escalate, and he can have difficulty calming down.

The water surges around them. The sound of the waves and sea gulls, the voices and screams of children and families, the surf, rising and falling, its ceaseless crescendo and diminuendo, rushes at Ido as a terrible cacophony like the buzzing of mosquitoes, loud and inescapable.

As unsettling and as unpredictable as autism is, it also brings a strange pleasure to Ido’s life. Glints of sunshine, pockets of shade mesmerize him, and objects in motion reveal traces of acceleration, like stop-motion photography.

He grabs a strand of kelp, strips off the leaves and begins whipping it over and over in an S-pattern against the dissolving foam. Waves rise and fall against him, but he stays focused on the movement that he’s created against the water’s surface.

Like many of his repetitive behaviors — arm-flapping, finger-dancing, string-twirling — this gesture, referred to in the autistic community as a “stim” (for self-stimulation), enhances sensations around him and has a narcotic effect.

They take me to a sensory experience that is pretty intoxicating. I don’t get lightheaded, but I can get so absorbed in a stim I sort of vanish from my personhood.

Please read the whole thing.  I think you’ll be amazed.

Please help pro-American rock group Madison Rising

I got this in my email today:

Dear Patriot,

The goal of our Star Spangled Banner Challenge is to reach 5 million views on our Star Spangled Banner video by December 31st and show all the naysayers that Americans still believe in this country and in our National Anthem.

We are currently at 4.9 MILLION views – but we need YOUR help to make sure we can get that through that last 2% by the end of the year.

So – we’re asking all of our fans to PLEASE watch the video and share it any way you can – on Facebook, through email, on Twitter, or just by telling other people about it.

Take the Challenge: Help Madison Rising reach 5 million views by December 31, 2013 and let’s celebrate what being an American is all about!

As a thank you for being a fan, please enjoy this free download of our new blockbuster track, Hero: http://shop.madisonrising.com/products/hero-free-limited-time-download

There is goodness out there to offset the evil

I was exchanging emails with a friend about our despair regarding the current political scene.  Sure, Obamacare is performing as badly as we all predicted and doing what we knew it would, but so what?  Republicans are busy snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, and Americans and their economy seem to be on the verge of implosion.  Some days, even though you believe in the silver lining, somehow the only thing you can see is the cloud.

And that’s why we need posts like this one, to remind us that the silver lining often resides in the individuals we don’t see, rather than in the politicians and politics we do see.  Much as Obama would like to deny it, we are a nation of individuals, not of special interest groups and victim classes.

Relationships and attitude matter

My teenage son just learned a life lesson, which is that relationships and attitude matter.  I can’t get into too much detail here, out of respect for the privacy of those involved, but I can say that my son wanted very much to qualify for something . . . and didn’t.  He was devastated by this failure, not so much because he wasn’t picked, but because of the chaotic process that led to him being left out.  He didn’t feel as if he’d been cut on the merits, which he could have understood but, instead, felt as if he just hadn’t connected with the decision-makers enough for them even to look at his merits.

Still, he had two things on his side right from the start.  The first was that he had great attitude throughout the process.  The decision-makers may have been poorly organized, but my son was always there, always on time, always striving, always engaging with people to learn how to improve.  He radiated “I want this.”  The second thing he had going for him was that he’d formed a good relationship with someone who, while not in charge, has pull.  Moreover, my son hadn’t formed that relationship to use this person.  Instead, he’d formed it because he genuinely respects and likes the person with pull, and that feeling was reciprocated.  It was a true mentorship.

The one other thing my son learned was that he had me on his side.  I know myself enough now not to react quickly, because my thoughts are ill-formed and my emotions high.  That’s when I go charging in like a maddened bull.  It took me a few decades, but I figured out that, while the general rule is that one should strike when the iron is hot, my iron needs to cool down a little or else I just burn myself.

As it happened, I’ve also got a nice relationship with my son’s mentor.  Once I got my thoughts lined up, I very politely approached the mentor, told him that I was confused by my son’s version of events (which I described in non-emotional terms), and asked if he could discover for me the viewpoint of the other people involved, especially the decision-makers.  No pressure, no expectations, no putting him in an uncomfortable position.

The end result is that my son is being reconsidered this coming week, in part because the decision-maker did notice his good attitude and in part because his mentor hustled for him.  Even better, my son is remarkably sanguine about the strong possibility that he still might not get what he wants.  What matters to him is that he’s being considered on the merits, instead of feeling as if he was thrown around on a high tide of disorganization and then just tossed out without any regard for his abilities and commitment.

A friend of mine who is wise in the ways of leadership told me this when I first heard about my son’s predicament:  “One of the leadership lessons I try to teach is the fact that leadership is all about relationships. Many leaders never get this and have little to no understanding of their impact on those around them.”

Truer words were never spoken.  Once my son understood that there was a relationship that involved him being seen as a real person, he was able to face cheerfully whatever consequences came his way.

I’ve spoken before at my blog about leadership.  Because my kids are so involved in so many sports, I’m fascinated by those coaches that inspire the kids — and equally fascinated by those coaches who know what they’re doing, and who love the sport, but who never succeed in bring the  kids along with them.  My friend is right that it’s about relationships.  But my son learned today that relationships run in two directions.  If you want a leader to be there for you, you also have to be there for the leader.  And unless someone is manifestly a dangerous enemy (whether to your person or to other aspects of your life), treat them in a friendly way and with respect, both because it will make your world a happier place and because you never know what will matter at the end of the day.  Don’t use people, but do appreciate them.

A proverb that has withstood the test of time

I was watching a high school soccer game (our side won), and letting my mind wander a bit, when Proverbs 15:17 popped into my mind:  “Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith.”

Isn’t that lovely?  It’s also a pithy piece of wisdom that is as true now as it was when written down thousands of years ago.

Do you have a favorite Biblical passage that reminds you what’s important in life?  (And no fair citing John 3:16, because I know that trumps all other passages.)  After all, one of the reasons the Bible lives on today is because of its timelessness, not just when it speaks directly to man’s relationship with God, but also when it speaks to man’s relationship with his fellow man or with his inner needs and drives.