Henry and I love reading the adventures of Jack and Annie in The Magic Tree House book series. In the last one, the brother-sister duo was rewarded by Merlin in Camelot for learning the fourth and final secret of greatness. According to Merlin, the four secrets of greatness are:
- Hard work
- Meaning and purpose
As I waited for Henry to fall asleep, his arms wound around my neck, I pondered the times I’ve had all of these and when I’ve fallen short. Interestingly, in every instance of failure I could identify one or more of the 4 elements lacking.
When I gave a sloppy audition for a piano scholarship at Furman? Lack of purpose and enthusiasm. (I loved piano but didn’t want a piano scholarship.)
When I fumbled through questions about one poem on my oral exam? Lack of hard work and enthusiasm. (Ugh, hated that poem.)
What about relationships? I notice when I’m not exhibiting “greatness” as a mother, wife, or friend, I’m usually lacking humility or enthusiasm.
One of my biggest goals right now is to be a great advocate for folks on the spectrum. I don’t want to be their voice, but I want to help others understand them as best I can. Perhaps I can be a bit of a translator. For example, Henry has a classmate whose mother doesn’t speak English. Her voice is as important as anyone’s, but at times her child must convey her thoughts to others who do not speak their native language. Is he capturing every nuance of his mother’s communication? Probably not, but he’s doing his best in the language that both he and the other person understand. Follow me?
The difference, of course, is that I’m not autistic. Henry’s friend can speak both English and Spanish, but I only “speak” neurotypical. What I can do is try to see the world through Henry’s eyes. Notice I didn’t say I can do it 100% correctly every time; I said try, and I can do that better than almost any non-autistic person I know. Next to Keith, I know Henry best. Herein lies the rub, though. The minute I assume I understand everything, I have lost my credibility. The most difficult secret of greatness to achieve, at least in the advocacy role, is humility.
In my observations of other advocates, I find hard work, meaning and purpose, and enthusiasm are constants. The inherent passion of an advocate almost guarantees those qualities. What I see more sparingly is a willingness to admit not knowing everything, a desire to know more, and a readiness to admit when we’re wrong.
If I am to be Henry’s best advocate, I have to remember that’s all I am. I am not him. I am his student. Books and lectures and academic studies are also my teachers, but he is my best teacher, if only I will observe and reflect.
I beg you, then, to remind yourself – often – that I am no autism expert. I am simply an eager learner. And while I am as much of an expert on Henry Dangel as one could ever be, Henry is the best expert on Henry.
We’re beginning to see some of this expert emerge, to our great relief and delight. The most exciting statements come out of his mouth, such as why he doesn’t like showers and why he hated the last page of Hello, Wally! when he was 3 years old. The best insights are yet to come. As I read accounts from adults on the spectrum, I smile with anticipation for all the things he will one day tell us. Look out, world. Here he comes.