Saturday, August 29, 2009


I'm not usually big on public displays.  You won't see me flying a flag, wearing green on St. Patrick's Day, or having waiters sing me Happy Birthday.  There are no bumper stickers on my car (though during the last presidential campaign, I ended up driving around with an Obama magnet, which I removed shortly after inauguration day).  I am usually annoyed by those ubiquitous awareness-ribbon magnets that pop up everywhere in every imaginable color.  I'm often reminded of an old George Carlin line: "That's a symbol, and I'll leave symbols for the symbol-minded."

I feel a certain ambivalence about the Autism Awareness bumper magnets.  When I see a car drive by with a blue puzzle piece on the back, I have to admit I feel a sense of community - it is satisfying to imagine some other parent navigating a similar situation to ours.  But I would feel weird putting one of those magnets on my car. That's just not how I operate.

I don't even think the puzzle piece is a great symbol for autism.  The society that created this symbol explains that "our children are handicapped by a puzzling condition; this isolates them from normal human contact and therefore they do not fit in," but this makes little sense to me, because a puzzle piece implies that there is a puzzle into which it fits perfectly.  And I know that this symbol really pisses off a lot of autistic adults.  I kind of prefer this alternative, representing the spectrum of neurodiversity:

So, it is with great astonishment that I find myself wearing a small puzzle-piece pendant on a silver chain.

I  bought it in an effort to promote awareness, whatever that might mean.  My intention was to solicit conversation with strangers. But in my head, it has become something of an amulet.  When Ryan is behaving strangely in public, I imagine other adults staring at us, then noticing my necklace and thinking "Oh, he must be acting like that because he's autistic, not because that woman is a terrible mother."  I'm sure not a single person has actually gone through that series of thoughts, but I find it a little comforting to imagine everyone within a 10-foot radius suddenly understands my life.

Surprisingly, I myself have even reflected upon this symbol while calming a tantrum or coaching my son through how to put on his shirt.  I look down at my necklace, and it reminds me to breathe.  It reminds me that he isn't having a fit out of spite for me, isn't willfully refusing to use language in traditional ways, isn't just being a pain in the ass.  It reminds me that my baby's brain is wired a little differently than mine, and that it's my job to help him learn to live in my world without denying him the right to be himself - to help him figure out how his piece fits into the puzzle.

1 comment:

  1. I have been following the Ryan Files with enormous admiration for you. Barbara Hauptman


Keep it civil, people.