Every kid is special in his or her own special way
By Stephanie Riley
“What is his special talent?”
When someone learns I have a child with autism, I’m often asked to describe his savant skills. Most folks are rendered speechless when I explain that he’s just a regular kid. He can’t tell you which day of the week May 18, 1916 was. If I drop a box of toothpicks, I don’t ask him how many were in the box. I usually don’t ask him to help clean them up, either.
My kid is not Rain Man. Like 90 percent of kids with autism, he is not a savant. He doesn’t have a supernatural talent for music, numbers or memorizing unusual facts. He is not a performer. For that, you’ll have to look to his younger sister. She loves an audience.
I’m so confused when people think that a child with autism needs to have a savant skill in order to be interesting. While he is not a child prodigy, he is a child. He has emerging interests and talents, just like every other kiddo. That’s interesting enough.
As a parent, I’m curious about the special talents of each of my children. I’ve enrolled them in sports, bought guitars and trumpets, invested in art classes and summer camps, all in the name of finding each child’s calling.
Sometimes you end up with a shelf filled with clay snakes wearing cowboy hats, and sometimes you learn what your child’s calling is not.
When 5-year-old Erin played soccer (and I use the term “played” very loosely), we learned that she wasn’t keen on competitive team sports. “That’s not fair,” she’d cry, hands on her hips, as someone took the ball from her at midfield. Apparently, turn taking is quite important to her. When we signed her up for ballet, chatting up the other girls in the class was infinitely more interesting than foot positions.
I did not despair at these perceived “failures.” I just kept on moving, allowing her to try things and explore her interests. Eventually, we learned that she is a gifted writer and has a sharp wit. She has taught me more about history than any teacher I’ve ever known. I felt proud when she teared up while watching “Lincoln.” Who knows what other gifts will reveal themselves in the years to come?
Likewise, we had no way of predicting that Emma would love soccer. She has asthma; I worried she wouldn’t be able to run on freshly mowed grass without needing an inhaler. Watching my brother (who also has asthma) play sports helped me overcome my fear of letting Emma exert herself. I’m glad we didn’t impose limits on her. She would have missed out on some great times. Her asthmatic uncle is still a great athlete. If you saw his “Just Dance” moves from Christmas Eve, you’d surely agree that he rocks. Like Emma, he is defined more by his heart than his lung capacity.
After years of watching Emma put on plays and tell jokes, we enrolled her in an acting class. Maybe it will click, or maybe the experience will just be another turn in the road of life. I will let you know. She doesn’t have to be famous for me to love her.
Just like her brother and sister, she just needs to be herself.
Research shows that about 10 percent of children with autism have savantlike abilities. The other 90 percent are amazing in other ways. Autism is only one part of who my son is. I don’t need a button that says “A kid with autism rocks my world.” All the kids in my life rock my world, in their own special way.
The challenge for parents, and the public, is to recognize that you don’t have to be a savant to be special. I want my kids to know that they can rock my world by being themselves. That is good enough for me, and I hope someday it will be good enough for everyone else, too.
So what are my son’s special talents, you ask?
Nick has a great sense of humor, he easily masters technology and he is wicked-fast on his bike. If he didn’t hate the sound of motorcycles, I’m sure he’d have a future as a Supercross racer. Someday he may help program the iPhone 16, or direct music videos. Based on his love of fireworks, I wouldn’t be surprised if he went into pyrotechnics.
One thing I know for sure is that his special talents outnumber his challenges. He doesn’t have to be a genius to earn my love. He just has to be himself. And maybe help me clean up these spilled toothpicks.
He is perfectly imperfect. We all are.