Once upon a time in a very big wood…
“Um, hold up,” you say. “I hate fairy tales.”
Good, because this isn’t a fairy tale. It’s an animal tale.
The Brothers Squirrel
…a Mother Squirrel gave birth to two babies. The moment they were born, she looked on them with the sublime love only a mother can possess.
She loved to gaze upon their smooth little bodies, their cuddly figures. She determined that they should never grow up, “For then they would no longer be small and smooth and precious, and I would be sad.”
Now one of these two squirrel babies was relocated far from the nest. How is unimportant; let’s just say Papa Squirrel took him away.
But the other was day-in and day-out mama’s little squirrel. She held him close at all times, keeping him always in fetal position.
She watched him carefully, and if he grew even one one-hundredth of an inch she would only hold him closer and curl him up all the more. And every time a single bit of fur crept up through the skin she’d catch it in her teeth and pluck it out.
Let’s leave it at that, and see what happened to Mama Squirrel’s other progeny.
Squirrel Brother grew up nicely, and eventually befriended a Bird of the forest. Bird saw a great many deficits in Squirrel, most glaring of which was that he didn’t fly.
“Why,” Bird wondered, “must he always be scurrying up and down the trees? Doesn’t he know how much easier it is, and how much more graceful, to get off the ground by flight?”
Unable to bear this, Bird set about to change Squirrel for the better.
One morning, Squirrel scurried up a tree in search of a nut. Bird quickly interposed himself with a couple of leafed twigs in his beak.
“Put these on your back, right behind your arms,” said Bird, “then climb to the highest branch as you are wont to do, and then jump. I know it will be scary, but it’s the only way you’ll learn to fly.”
Okay…I’ll take a fairly common cop-out to which storytellers sometimes resort, and leave the rest to your imagination. A number of possible scenarios could result for both protagonists.
The “moral of the story”
For our purposes, let’s take a closer look at the behavior of Mama Squirrel and Bird.
From my perspective (and no offense, but I am the storyteller here), being an overbearing mother was not Mama Squirrel’s chief error. She was certainly that, but her more fundamental mistake was to assume change was bad.
What about Bird? Bird wanted to make a change, for sure. But it was the wrong kind of change.
A basic principle of genuine change is that a thing changes in order to become more itself. So for example, Mama Squirrel should have let her under-weened child grow to be the squirrel nature intended him to be, and Bird should have realized nature never intended the kind of change he wanted.
So what does this have to do with people on the autism spectrum?
Well, for years we have tried to get away from the “fix-it” mentality so as to better children and adults with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) as a unique individuals, without succumbing to the urge to “change” them.
This, however, brings us face-to-face (or rather face-to-horns) with a dilemma. Don’t we want to foster certain changes in their lives? If, for instance, their sensory experience is so intense as to inhibit their freedom and diminish their quality of life, shouldn’t we have the goal of eradicating this peculiarly “autistic” trait?
The key is to understand change in its most authentic and life-giving sense. If we use a child’s ASD challenges as an excuse to keep him “holed up,” he will turn in on himself, and his potential will atrophy. What is more, the troubling “autistic” symptoms in question will probably worsen.
On the other hand, we could meet with the same result by forcing change on him when he’s not ready.
The “one thing necessary”
The key is patience. Every human being has a desire – even if hidden deep, deep inside – to reach his/her potential. In order to effectively appeal to this desire, we have to establish a firm base of trust so that s/he will want to venture out toward us.
That’s where it always starts. From the infant learning to crawl, to the soldier under a strong and loyal commander, to the quantum physics student on the first day of class with a personable and knowledgeable professor, all growth takes root in trust.
A trusting guide inspires change, but only because a trusting guide does not want change. On the contrary, a trusting guide wants to help us become more ourselves, with all the unique struggles, talents, and quirks this entails.
Daniel Crofts is a 31-year-old man with Asperger Syndrome. He has an MA in English/Literature from the State University of New York College at Brockport and experience in the fields of freelance journalism, substance abuse prevention, online higher education, and service to people with developmental disabilities. He runs a blog called Forming Horizons (www.forminghorizons.com), which is dedicated to the mission of dialogue and information among and for the various parties impacted by autism spectrum disorders.