And so when I think about this network that my mom started, I know what she saw, when those experts sat her down. When they said that I couldn’t do things, she just chose to say, “But he can.” When they said I would struggle, she chose to think of strengths. When they said that this would be ugly, she chose to say that this could also be beautiful.
And there is another way of putting her rethink. My friend and I agree that men are from Mars, women are from Venus, and autistic people are from Pluto.
We go to this next slide. My brother on the left, Steven, the boys’ boy; he’s definitely from Mars. My sister Marian in the middle, she’s from Venus. And the boy on the right, with his socks pulled up with his shirt tucked in, his top buttoned-up, and a combover without one hair out of place, he is from Pluto.
I look at it now and I’m like, “I was just ahead of my time.” I’m basically dawning the eight year old hipster. I mean, I basically paved the way. But if we actually entertain this thought for a second, Pluto in our Solar System has this fundamentally unique orbit. It moves in a different way. And it’s the same for children on the autism spectrum. Our orbit or our mind just moves differently. That doesn’t mean there are things we can’t do.
Hell, we can do most things, we can even throw in a little extra. Our mind can move like lightening on certain subjects. Language, spelling, and words were what did it for me. But our mind, our orbit, can sometimes take longer to adapt in the area of social skills. But it does adapt. I can’t tell you how confusing my literal mind found sarcasm as a kid. Let’s just say it could take a joke a long way.
And so I realized that when Sarah said to me, “I guess that having Asperger’s means that there are things I can’t do” that she is in an environment where people stare at her different orbit and point at it as a deficit. Whereas I came from an environment where my brave mother removed my disorder by creating an environment free of this stigma that would inhibit me.
Twenty years have passed since I was diagnosed. Experts no longer talk to parents like that, health innovations have come a long way, but in my work I see this stigma holding kids back all the time and it’s going to require all of us to do something about it. Because we’re all going to work with people on this spectrum. One in 88 children in the United States are diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. And these children can bring extraordinary value to your life.
Here is Leonardo da Vinci. Author Michael Gelb has researched da Vinci’s life, looked at the way he gathered notes, his visual perception, his detail and focus, and concluded that this man was far advanced on the autism spectrum. Look at the value he gave us. The Renaissance. Now the lesson from da Vinci’s life is not that every child on the autism spectrum is going to be exactly like him. Because they can’t be. You know, it’s a very broad spectrum. The lesson is, though, that this man had a network of people around him that worked on his gifts and helped him control his difficulties. That network, his “I CAN” network, started when his father, Piero, took his son’s paintings to a painter friend named Verrocchio and said, “Look at what my son is doing!” And Verrocchio looked at these paintings and instead of pointing a finger at a different orbit, said, “Bring me into that orbit.”
Now, consider this. Do you think that if da Vinci was born today, he would be able to do now what he did then? I worry that our tendency to mock kids, to label, to hold them back, is stifling the da Vincis of today. And so this is where we can all play a role. We all have a role in a child’s “I CAN” network.
If you are a child or young person on this spectrum, hear me: never let a label limit what you’re capable of. Use this spectrum to create your own label. If you are a parent or a grandparent, know your child is special. They’re just leading a focused life. Be confident with the quiet magic you can wield to bring out their gifts. Or raise a child who is a loyal friend to one of these children.
And if you’re a teacher, create those platforms that make these children socially visible and respected in the schoolyard. And I promise you, when you find you role in a kid’s “I CAN” network, there’s nothing like the sight of watching one of these children transform their orbit from a place of frustration, failure, and shame, into a place of confidence. You watch them move from the prison of self-doubt to the freedom of self-belief.
And to my mom who’s here today: thank you for that freedom.