The judges of normality are present everywhere. We are in the society of the teacher-judge, the doctor-judge, the educator-judge, the social worker-judge; it is on them that the universal reign of the normative is based; and each individual, wherever he may find himself, subjects to it his body, his gestures, his behavior, his aptitudes, his achievements. — Michel Foucault

My earliest memory is of standing a few feet from my mother. She is crouched down, arms held out toward me, urging, “Come on! Come on!” Around me are some other people — brothers, sisters — friends, perhaps, but they are mostly a blur.

My mother’s eyes are so very clear to me. There is LOVE — incredible, unconditional, indescribable love — pouring from her eyes into my being. And since I am so young I am very sensitive, and I can also feel that force of love coming from, and through, my mother. It enfolds me, it holds me, it lifts me up.

Paramhansa Yogananda says that God’s unconditional, incomprehensible love is most closely represented by a mother’s love for her baby. In this memory, I am completely filled with that divine love.

In it, I know I can do anything. I take my first few baby steps, finishing my first walk in the arms of my mother. I hear the applause around me, I feel my mother’s excitement, and I know that I am so very, very loved.

What happens to that sense of being unconditionally loved? I believe I was connected to it all through my elementary school years. It was only when I started (shudder) junior high that the all-enfolding sense of being loved evaporated.

I remember the exact instant it happened. First off, my childhood soul mate — my best friend of all best friends — moved away just before I started sixth grade, so I was already feeling bewildered, like I’d lost half of myself. Then, on the third day of sixth grade, I got onto the school bus. One of the popular girls looked at me and said, derision dripping from her voice, “Do you always wear stretch pants?”

The truth was, I did always wear stretch pants. I liked the little straps that fit under my feet and the freedom of movement that stretch pants allowed. But when I looked around, I noticed that nobody — not one single other person — was wearing stretch pants.

A light bulb lit up in my mind. People care about what you wear! It said. They don’t think you’re worthwhile or loveable unless you look right!

I remember feeling disbelief, but then realizing I’d better get on the stick or I would be the target of all sorts of bullies.

Trouble was, it took me three years to really get the look together. So for those three years in junior high, I was spit upon, slingshotted, called horrible names, and more.

But toward the end of those three torturous years, I started to crack the code. I intentionally studied what made people acceptable in this strange new world where you had to conform in order to be loved. And I decided to play the game.

Off went the blue cat-eye glasses and on went contact lenses. Off went the K Mart clothing and on came stuff from the mall. The hair got styled fashionably. And when I started high school, with almost all new people, I  made my way quite high up the popularity ladder.

Still, I never lost the sense that it was some ridiculous game and I’d simply learned to play it. I looked with pity upon those students who, for whatever reason, couldn’t or wouldn’t figure it out and play along. I could never be mean to them the way the others were.

Now, as the parent of a kid on the spectrum, I wonder: Do kids with autism ever crack the code? Do they, can they, learn to play the game — or are they always the target of bullies, of impatient teachers, of people in general who don’t understand? Dr. Temple Grandin talks about those torturous school years. My ASD nephew went through it. So did my cousin’s ASD boy. Twelve years of school — no friends, merciless bullying, and always the outcast.

You may have read the recent story about the boy with aspergers who, after being yelled at yet again by his teacher, got onto the New York subway and lived there — one train after another — for ten days. He took the battery out of his cell phone because he didn’t want any phone calls. When he was finally “caught” he was asked why he’d done it.

His answer: He just wanted to be somewhere where nobody yelled at him.

When I think about Joseph going to a mainstream school, I see myself falling into the “act normally” trap. I demand, over and over, that he  stay seated during meals (he loves to pop up every few minutes to sing and dance, or spell out a word on the frig, or whatever catches his fancy). I insist that he not make strange movements in public. I try to make him brave about going down slides and things like that.

But when I think about homeschooling him, or having him in some other personalized learning program where teachers appreciate the differences in children, then I find myself relaxing and loving what makes Joseph so special.

Take music, for instance. Even Joseph is astute enough to know not to compose in public — but when he is at home, symphonies swell up in his very being, making him move and sway and hum and sing.

When I express interest, he’ll share parts of what he hears with me: “Here come the violins ( he makes some violin music). Now I hear flutes (hums a beautiful, high-pitched melody) — oh, here’s the trumpet” — and on and on.

What did Mozart or Beethoven act like when they were five, I wonder. Did their peers (and maybe even their parents) think they were a little crazy? Would public school — or any school — have crushed the music of their souls?

I guess the question I have about the music that pours through Joseph is: is this autism or is this an amazing gift from God? Or does it have to be one or the other? Maybe the answer is, simply, yes to all of the above.

The other question is, is there a place — other than home — where someone could see, and draw out, the gifts that God has blessed him with? Where his spirit won’t be crushed because he isn’t “normal?” Where he could fit in, autism and all, and not be seen as lesser than the others?

And if there isn’t, does the problem lie with kids like Joseph, or with the rest of us?

That’s it. I’m ending this entry with questions, not answers. Because I have faith that when we’re asking the right questions, we’re getting very close to finding the right answers.

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