So often we think of a disability as only a hardship, a burden or, at best, a challenge. My thinking was turned around this last spring as my 13-year-old son with Asperger's syndrome and ADD took the stage to compete in the National Geographic Geography Bee at the state level in Chicago. As a first-timer, Eric captured fourth place in the state.
His achievement prompted the local newspaper to call to include him in an article on the top finishers in the area. While speaking with the reporter, I thought to myself, should I mention Eric's diagnosis? Was it relevant to the story? No, I decided. I am trying to get away from him being strictly defined by this disability. It is only part of who he is as a whole person. He was successful in the geography bee because he studied hard and has a remarkable memory.
When the article appeared in the newspaper, I was struck by what I read. The first place winner is a fellow Aspergerian! He attributed his success to Asperger's-it gave him the ability to remember place names, capitals, sister cities and locations. Because he does not have the capacity to absorb and apply social protocols, his brain, as he put it, was "not cluttered with people's faces and names." Therefore, he had more room in his brain for storing facts.
That's when it clicked for me: Their diagnosis was not an important piece of the story because they triumphed in spite of it. Instead, it was significant because for the first time in their lives, their disability was viewed as a plus-not a minus-something that they could embrace and be proud of. This experience shows what a wonderful gift a disability can be, given the right circumstances.
There is hope, then, for a bright future for the autism spectrum population as long as these wonderful quirky kids place themselves in situations that showcase their best qualities.
This is the goal most parents have for their children, typical or not: Find what you are good at and give it your best. Eric came away from the geography bee with a new atlas, a medal, a list of e-mails of like-minded friends and most importantly, a sense of pride in all he is.
Therese Van Wazer is a stay-at-home mom of three, and a special needs advocate with a focus on the autism spectrum community.