Ron Fournier, whose son Tyler has autism, is compiling stories and reflections from readers on the spectrum and from their loved ones. Reach out to Ron here with your own experiences. And be on the lookout for his new book, Love That Boy.
Our latest reader contributor and parent of an autistic child strikes a chord with me and my family: Late diagnosis. Check. Solitary life. Check. Crushing rejection. Check. A parent’s desperate dream: “I wish more employers could see past the facade of autism to recognize the smart, hard-working people who simply have minds that are wired differently from the majority of the population.” Here’s our reader in full:
Thanks for sharing so many of these stories. My daughter had some of the typical autism traits as a preschooler, but she was so intelligent, we didn’t think she possibly could be autistic.
As she rose through elementary school, she slowly pulled more into her own little world, and away from all of the other children. By fifth grade, her school guidance counselor told us she was certain my daughter was autistic. As we read more about the spectrum, it was obvious to us, too. We didn’t get her officially diagnosed until she was 16, and then only as a precaution in case she needed help in college.
She never needed help (though she did live at home instead of on campus). She finished college with a 3.9 GPA in biology, with a goal to go to medical school because she always had wanted to help others. Her grades and great MCAT scores earned interviews at medical schools, but she couldn’t get past the admissions interviews.
I understand why they couldn’t see her as a physician. She struggles to look people in the eye. She speaks in a monotone. She answers questions with the fewest words possible. But she would have been amazing at the analytical aspects of pathology.
Crushed by the rejection, she went with a backup plan of lab work. Thankfully, a wonderful instructor saw her potential and accepted her into a histotechnology training program.
When she finished the one-year program, the hospital lab where she trained had no openings for her. For eight months, she got a couple of job interviews a month. Like the med school interviewers, they couldn’t see her working in their labs.
Finally, the lab where she trained had an opening and hired her. They had seen how dedicated and smart she was. Two years later, she is the perfect person to work the overnight shift, which leaves her alone in the lab for about half the shift. Following protocols to the letter every time is so important in lab work, and that’s a strength of many with autism. Her life is very solitary, but she’s happy that she has found her own way to help others.
As parents, it hurt us when she had no real friends in school, and no social life in college, but it never bothered her. It took us a long time to realize her needs for happiness were different from ours. Now, we’re so proud of her, and she even seems proud of herself for finding her own niche in life. I wish more employers could see past the facade of autism to recognize the smart, hard-working people who simply have minds that are wired differently from the majority of the population.
On happiness, it took me years to realize that Tyler’s needs were different from my own. And it was only after digging into research on happiness (and a trip to Monticello, where Thomas Jefferson pursued his) that I sorted through the difference between goodness and pleasure. The latter is what parents most often want for their kids, including neurotypicals. But it’s the former that makes them happy (Marc Gellman sums this up nicely here.)
On employment, it’s worth noting here that Hillary Clinton made big news Monday that was little-noticed in the media. Fielding questions from a campaign audience, Clinton told an autistic lawyer she opposed a Depression-era labor law that allow employers to hire disabled people at a subminimum wage. Sometimes as low as 8 cents per hour. (If you or someone you care about has worked for subminimum wages as a disabled worker, please let me know your story.)
That’s how reader Gary describes his three amazing stepkids:
I was touched by the note about your son Tyler as I read it this morning. It was forwarded to me by my wife of nine years whose three children have all been diagnosed with ASD [autism spectrum disorder]. Her oldest son is 26 and seeking a bachelor’s degree in mathematics with plans to attend graduate school. She has 13-year-old twins who are seventh graders at a public school right now. One of the twins and the oldest son have Asperger’s while the other twin has a more severe form of autism with speech problems and more challenging behavioral issues.
My wife has struggled tirelessly to help her three kids adjust, adapt, and grow into the wonderful human beings they can become. They are so much better off because of their mom. She has faced many obstacles with each child, yet through her fiery determination and strong will, they have overcome those obstacles and were strengthened as a result.
Your note came at a particularly challenging time for her. Last night, as she lay in bed, she told me that she was not a good parent and that she had failed her younger son.
She has adjusted his IEP [individualized education program] so that he does half of his schooling at home under her supervision. He was not particularly excited about his studies that evening and he showed his frustration by ignoring her lessons. This had gone on for about three weeks and she punished him by taking away his various forms of entertainment. She was regretting her decision and felt that he hated her.
I reminded her of how well her two other children have done despite their ASD and how she has helped them overcome so many pitfalls in their lives. I also reminded her that he is so much better off because of her and that he is coming along just like his older brother. She just needed to remember the patience she showed her eldest.
My wife is an amazing woman. She can be so hard on herself because she wants her kids to have a great life. But there are times when so gets depressed trying to make that happen. I can only console her because I don’t understand all of it. The love of a mother for her child is immeasurable, but when there are three of them with ASD and that love is not commonly reciprocated, it can be very difficult to handle.
Your note was uplifting to her when she needed it the most. How do I know this? Her email to me with your forwarded note said, “I love my dandelions!!” I know she does and I know that she is cultivating them in her kitchen for the wonderful characteristics they possess.
Two readers responding to my note on autism reflect two disparate vantage points. The first is a 66-year-old Georgia man with Asperger’s Syndrome, a retired Army officer who has struggled socially his entire life. His subject line: “On the Spectrum.”
[B]oth parents and teachers must understand that not all young people are cut out to be “the leaders of tomorrow”—that some individuals will make their greatest contribution as tinkers or inventors or mechanics or engineers or programmers.
To quote Popeye the Sailor: “I am what I am and that’s all that I am!” And I’ve done okay.
The second is from an elementary school teacher who has taught children on the spectrum. Keith Bohlender of Toronto is neurotypical:
I read “My Little Dandelion,” as well as the Wildhood and Garcia articles, with great interest …. My wife is a speech therapist whose clientele is made up of pre-school children. Many of these children have very recently received diagnoses, or are facing the very real prospect that their beloved child may imminently be diagnosed with ASD [Autism Spectrum Disorder]. My wife is in the exceedingly difficult position of being able, after many years of experience, to expertly recognize the markers that are described in these articles.
She cannot, however, make a formal diagnosis—even when tearfully begged to do so by parents. So, she encourages the parents to seek an opinion from a medical professional.
I am sending all three of these articles to her, with the thought that she may be able to pass them on to some of the parents of her clientele. It may give them comfort and sustenance to read of how adults with ASD are able to cope, contribute and thrive.
Also worth checking out is the video seen above, on how creative expression can help kids with autism. And keep the emails coming—if you’re autistic or the parent of an autistic child and would like to share your story.
I used to dream my son would be an athlete. Now I enjoy watching Tyler chase his own dreams to be a history teacher or comedian. One thing I never considered my boy to be: a dandelion.
Not until I read a Forbes profile on a new acquaintance of mine, Thorkil Sonne, who uses the analogy to describe the brilliant uniqueness of autistic people—like his son and mine:
To most people, the dandelion is nothing more than an annoying weed – something to be rooted out of our lawns and flowerbeds. But what a lot of people don’t know is that, when cultivated, the dandelion is one of the most valuable and useful plants in nature. In many parts of the world, the dandelion is known for its nutritional, healing and medicinal properties. The value of a dandelion is very much dependent on our knowledge and perception of its value.
Most of us don’t want dandelions in our lawns – they don’t fit there. But if you place a dandelion plant in your kitchen garden, and cultivate it, it can turn out to be one of your most valuable plants. Dandelions are used to make beer, wine, salads, and natural medicines. Quite simply, if you choose to cultivate dandelions, you will reap their rewards. So, is a dandelion a weed or an herb? You decide. The same can be said for individuals with autism. The value of what you see depends on your level of understanding and accommodation.
The article describes Thorkil’s efforts to link autistic people with employers who need the distinctive skill sets that come with autism. Most employers don’t know what they’re missing. People with autism aren’t defective; they contribute a special sauce to the human experience. Steve Silberman puts it this way in his book NeuroTribes:
One of the most promising developments since the publication of “The Geek Syndrome” has been the emergence of the concept of neurodiversity: the notion that conditions like autism, dyslexia, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder [ADHD] should be regarded as naturally occurring cognitive variations with distinctive strengths that have contributed to the evolution of technology and culture, rather than mere checklists of deficits and dysfunctions.”
After my son’s diagnosis six years ago, I slowly came to the same conclusion and wrote about it here, here, and here. But there is only so much I can do to help the cause—to help neurotypical people understand what it’s like to be autistic and to realize the value autism offers society—because I’m not truly a part of it. Because I am not autistic.
The perspectives I have on people and the world I’ve interacted with thus far in my life are necessarily informed by my [Asperger’s], whether it looks like I’m an Aspie or not. Ultimately, when my friend told me I don’t look autistic, he was essentially affirming my constructed normalcy, my ability to fake it. In high school, I would have relished in this aptitude to appear “same,” and would have taken his remark as a compliment. But I’ve come to realize that each attempt to somehow make myself more “acceptable” to someone else, more lovable, has left me with what is, in the end, a false connection. I don’t want to be judged based on my [autism] alone, but nor do I want it to not matter. I may not “look autistic” from the outside, but if you see with my eyes, I do.
Please read the powerful stories by Wildhood and Garcia, and let me know what you think. And if you’re autistic or the parent of an autistic child and would like to share your story, I’d love to hear from you as well.
Tyler accept his autism far better than his father once did. “It’s a part of me but I don’t find that it’s a big deal, that I have to be talking about it every five seconds,” he says in a video for Autism Speaks that will be released next month with my parenting memoir, Love That Boy. “Like blue eyes: I don’t talk about how I have blue yes. I have autism, that’s it.”
More and more Americans are reporting near-constant cannabis use, as legalization forges ahead.
The proliferation of retail boutiques in California did not really bother him, Evan told me, but the billboards did. Advertisements for delivery, advertisements promoting the substance for relaxation, for fun, for health. “Shop. It’s legal.” “Hello marijuana, goodbye hangover.” “It’s not a trigger,” he told me. “But it is in your face.”
When we spoke, he had been sober for a hard-fought seven weeks: seven weeks of sleepless nights, intermittent nausea, irritability, trouble focusing, and psychological turmoil. There were upsides, he said, in terms of reduced mental fog, a fatter wallet, and a growing sense of confidence that he could quit. “I don’t think it’s a ‘can’ as much as a ‘must,’” he said.
How online shopping and cheap prices are turning Americans into hoarders
It’s easier than ever to buy things online. It’s so easy that Ryan Cassata sometimes does it in his sleep. Cassata, a 24-year-old singer/songwriter and actor from Los Angeles, recently got a notification from Amazon that a package had been shipped to his apartment, but he didn’t remember buying anything. When he logged onto his account and saw that a fanny pack and some socks were on the way, he remembered: A few nights back, he had woken up in the middle of the night to browse—and apparently shop on—Amazon.
He shops when he’s awake, too, buying little gadgets like an onion chopper, discounted staples like a 240-pack of gum, and decorations like a Himalayan salt lamp. The other day, he almost bought a pizza pool float, until he remembered that he doesn’t have a pool. “I don’t really need most of the stuff,” he tells me.
Protesters toppled the 1913 statue Monday night, making it the latest Civil War memorial to be removed either by government or by demonstrators acting on their own.
DURHAM, N.C.—On June 2, 1913, Julian Shakespeare Carr spoke at the dedication of a statue at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, his alma mater. Carr had served in the Confederate army as a lowly private, but upon returning from the war he had made several fortunes in tobacco, textiles, and banking, and affected the title “General” for his leadership of the United Confederate Veterans.
In addition to being an accomplished businessman, Carr was a virulent racist. In his speech that day, he recalled, “One hundred yards from where we stand, less than 90 days perhaps after my return from Appomattox, I horse-whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds, because upon the streets of this quiet village she had publicly insulted and maligned a Southern lady, and then rushed for protection to these University buildings where was stationed a garrison of 100 Federal soldiers.”
With Camille Preaker, Zoe Barnes, and Rory Gilmore, Hollywood’s depictions of women reporters have never been further from reality.
One of the most compelling characters in the recent Showtime documentary miniseries The Fourth Estate is the New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman. Haberman joined the newspaper in 2015 to help cover Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, and since then, she explains, her workload has been all-encompassing. Haberman is rarely seen on camera without a phone in her hand or attached to her ear. “The biggest mistake I made was promising my children that they would get their mother back at the end of the campaign,” she says. In one memorable scene, she takes a break in the middle of recording a podcast to reassure her son that he can’t die in a nightmare.
The Fourth Estate makes for fascinating television despite the fact that the majority of the series simply captures people in meetings or people making calls or people commuting back and forth to work. As Stephen Marche wrote in 2014 for Esquire, the reality of journalists is that they’re “one of the less glamorous species of humanity,” and the most reliable trait of the truly gifted ones is that they’re perpetually on the phone—which is presumably why the entertainment industry has long preferred an alternate depiction of journalists, particularly when it comes to women. On television and in film, the fictional lady reporter tends to look less like Haberman and more like Camille Preaker, portrayed in the HBO miniseries Sharp Objects by Amy Adams.
They say it takes a village to raise a child, but what do you do when the village shuns you?
Parenting a child with conduct disorder is the loneliest thing I know. Conduct disorder (CD) is a diagnosis given to children who have an ongoing pattern of troubling antisocial behavior. The definitions are all very wordy—but the simple version is that a child who gets this diagnosis might grow up to be a psychopath.
When my son got his diagnosis, I wasn’t surprised. He started physically hurting me when his age was measured in months, rather than years. Consequences did not deter him. For years I told friends, doctors, teachers, my own parents that I thought there was something wrong with him. No one listened. Parents at the park started avoiding us. My son was never invited to parties or included in fun activities. Not that I blame them—he was constantly harming other children. But American culture rarely blames the child who is acting out; it blames their parents. Too often, I heard, “If it was my child I would never let them get away with this.” Eventually I stopped trying to connect with other parents. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but what do you do when the village shuns you?
At the MTV VMAs, the big memorial for the Queen of Soul came in the form of lengthy self-mythologizing by the Queen of Pop.
“Some skinny-ass white girl is going to come up here and belt out a song by one of the greatest soul singers that ever lived?”
This is what some talent scouts thought when a pre-fame Madonna, Louise Ciccone, asked to sing Aretha Franklin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” at an audition. Or at least this is what Madonna assumes they were thinking. In a speech allegedly paying tribute to the Queen of Soul at Monday night’s MTV Video Music Awards, Madonna delivered the “skinny-ass white girl” line with a smirk, rendering it a double entendre that also referenced what the VMAs audience was thinking in that moment. Madonna didn’t end up singing any Franklin on MTV, but she did something else that was strange and unadvisable.
What happens next would reveal little about the president, and much about American society.
In 2007, 13 years after the brutal murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, 12 years after a jury found O. J. Simpson innocent of those murders, and 10 years after a civil jury found him liable for them, Simpson published a book called If I Did It. Outrage ensued. To the many who needed no further evidence of Simpson’s guilt, the book was the horrific culmination of his long slide into desperation and depravity. Can a person not only get away with murder, they wondered, but profit from it in open daylight? Aren’t there any rules?
Last week’s Omarosa-driven frenzy of speculation over whether a tape exists of President Donald Trump using the N word brought the book back to mind. (Tellingly, this frenzy is also tinged with the question of what people with little credibility will do in the name of book profits, but that’s another story.) The conversation seemed to focus less on whether such a tape exists than whether it would “matter” if it did.
The Tesla CEO’s tearful New York Times interview reveals a lot about the double standards men and women face.
On Thursday night, The New York Timespublished an interview with Elon Musk that offers a view into the billionaire entrepreneur’s life in the last year. Musk choked up “multiple times,” the Times reported in the story, and “alternated between laughter and tears.” He explained that he was overworked at Tesla, his electric-car company—which has spent the past several months scrambling to meet ambitious production goals—and that the situation has taken a toll on his physical health, family time, and social life.
“I thought the worst of it was over—I thought it was,” Musk said. “The worst is over from a Tesla operational standpoint. But from a personal pain standpoint, the worst is yet to come.”
A long-running inferiority complex, vast statutory power, a chilling new directive from the top—inside America’s unfolding immigration tragedy
Settling into a sense of safety is hard when your life’s catalog of memories teaches you the opposite lesson. Imagine: You fled from a government militia intent on murdering you; swam across a river with the uncertain hope of sanctuary on the far bank; had the dawning realization that you could never return to your village, because it had been torched; and heard pervasive rumors of former neighbors being raped and enslaved. Imagine that, following all this, you then found yourself in New York City, with travel documents that were unreliable at best.
This is the shared narrative of thousands of emigrants from the West African nation of Mauritania. The country is ruled by Arabs, but these refugees were members of a black subpopulation that speaks its own languages. In 1989, in a fit of nationalism, the Mauritanian government came to consider these differences capital offenses. It arrested, tortured, and violently expelled many black citizens. The country forcibly displaced more than 70,000 of them and rescinded their citizenship. Those who remained behind fared no better. Approximately 43,000 black Mauritanians are now enslaved—by percentage, one of the largest enslaved populations in the world.
Four Atlantic staffers discuss the film’s particular power, and the movie moments they’re still thinking about.
When Warner Bros. announced in 2016 that it’d be making Crazy Rich Asians for the big screen, a few things were clear from the start: The movie would be an adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s bestselling novel about a Chinese American economics professor who accompanies her Singaporean boyfriend back home for a wedding, only to discover that he’s from one of the island’s wealthiest families. It would be a rare, major U.S. production with an all-Asian cast. It would also be a romantic comedy, a genre Hollywood has fallen out of love with. And, crucially, it was clear that the stakes for the film would be incredibly—even impossibly—high. If it failed, the thinking went, would big studios want to make more Asian-driven stories in the future?