Sunday, October 10, 2010

Finding Joy in Shadows

I came across a video online the other day of a young woman with Asperger's who was addressing the question often posed to her: would you take away your condition, if you had the ability? Her answer, told eloquently, was no, because that would be taking away all of her. Her Asperger's is an intrinsic part of who she is, of her makeup. Taking that away would be like leaving her...well, as a completely different person, not herself.

I know there's this movement out there, the "aspies" and "auties" vs. the "neurotypicals," rife with lots of emotion and the claim that there isn't so much anything wrong with people on the spectrum as there is with the neurotypicals who help set the guidelines as to what is normal and acceptable societal behavior. And then there are those who consider autism a disease to be cured.

In this argument I fall somewhere in the middle. There is no doubt that everything about autism is not inherently good. When autism becomes dehibilitating, destructive, violent -- how can that be celebrated?

And yet...and yet, I think I understand what the girl with Asperger's is saying. I think I have an inkling. Autism is not like cancer. A cancer you cut out and remove. What you learn from it may be a blessing, but there is nothing physicially, intrinsically good about cancer. It must be destroyed.

Autism, in its milder variations, is more like a perspective; a different way of taking in the world. It's something that weaves its way through the mind, through the emotions, through the senses. In some ways that means the world almost "explodes" around them, and people with ASD are left to figure out how to process the information coming in and overwhelming them. They do this in ways that are difficult to understand. But maybe we should try to understand.

There is that famous scene from the film "American Beauty" that always sticks in my mind ( I found the film as a whole to be rather dark and disturbing, but I've always loved the part when they're watching filmed images of a plastic bag, as it gets tossed back and forth by the wind on a late autum day, dancing a beautiful, graceful dance in the air, on the ground, in the air again. "That day," says the teenage character in the movie, about filming the bag, "I realized that there is this entire life behind things."

Ethan loves shadows. He loves lights, fans, and storm drains. He loves the way the light from the hall casts a long shadow across the door in his bedroom, and the way that shadow moves as the door moves. He loves the satisfying plop that comes from the sound of a rock dropping into the water at the bottom of the storm drain. He loves the hum of a ceiling fan high above him. He loves to point out the sun as it pops in and out of clouds. He treasures finding tunnels and loves places where he can make his voice echo. "Echo! Echo!" he calls as we walk into Target every week. His voice bounces off the cement ceiling at the entrance and he smiles.

We can call these things weird and quirky, we can get annoyed by them at times, and that's okay. But I've found I can also choose to notice something: the joy Ethan finds in the mundane. The little, amazing details about this world that we pass right over on our rush to do something more interesting.

The other afternoon after days of rain the sun came out. Ethan woke up after his nap and found it there. He was especially overjoyed because Ethan knows when the sun comes out it brings back the shadows to our living room. It's a little hard to explain, but our living room has windows angled in such a way, some facing a main road, some facing the sun at that time of day, so that in the late afternoon every car that goes by throws a patch of light that then moves across the ceiling as the car moves.

"Shadows!" Ethan cried as he walked downstairs and looked at the living room ceiling. On the cloudy days, this afternoon show disappears. Ethan's whole face was lit up by a grin. He stopped there on the stairs and waited for another round of cars to go by. I stopped with him. We watched the light move. Sometimes just a quick line as a car sped by. Other times, "Shadows stop?" Ethan pointed out. The light moved and then stopped. It must have had something to do with the traffic stopping (we live not far from a traffic light). This line, this swath of light stopped on the ceiling above the fireplace for a few minutes, then moved on and disappeared.

We stood there watching. And this time I saw, I really saw the brilliance of yellow leaves on the maple in front of the house. I saw the way the sun streams through the window in our entryway in a brilliant way at just this time on fall afternoons. I appreciated the warmth and color that light brings after days of gray. We've lived for nearly seven years in this house, and I've complained plenty of times about the traffic in the aftneroons, but never noticed the way the cars create the dance of light and shadows.

Autism is more than having knack for noticing detail. Autism can also mean a way of discovering the simple beauties all around us. Autism can show us how to find joy in shadows and to see what is right in front of us in a different way. Amazing things happen, I think, when we choose to see differently.

No comments: