Acceptance is the Cure
by Diane Isaacs
These words casually flow out of my son Wyatt’s mouth as we hike up to our favorite tree we call “Bodhi.” There is a swinging bench under its majestic branches, an ideal perch to take in the cityscape to the east, the mountains to the west, and the Pacific Ocean across the horizon.
With heart beating and cheeks red from the rigorous ascent, Wyatt rocks the swing, tapping into nature’s wisdom at his favorite respite. He talks about how nature makes him aware–it encourages him to take time to see the color in each flower, the shapes of the clouds, and the smell of the pending rain. Hiking trails is a necessary balance to any of his “sensory violations” from our high-tech city lifestyle. It grounds him, literally.
The word “aware” and the classic April weather (showers were rolling in) trigger an association to Autism Awareness Month. Since Wyatt found his voice at a microphone on tour with HBO’s award-wining documentary, AUTISM: THE MUSICAL, he has been on a mission to change the way the world sees autism and encourages people to simply be more aware of autism. The newly released statistics of 1 in 88 kids and 1 in 54 boys support Wyatt’s urgent call that we all be more aware of autism since it is obviously a growing part of our social fabric. Awareness is more than just knowing the word or recognizing its textbook features; it’s about knowing autism’s diversity and many faces. Autism presents itself uniquely in each diagnosed person, something Wyatt celebrates: “If we were all the same, it would be so boring.”
He describes his teenage friends with autism as kind, compassionate, funny, sensitive, conscientious, loving, loud, quirky, and smart. He wonders if people know autism to be those things or if they can look at autism for its gifts rather than its gloom-and-doom challenges. Uber-positive Wyatt attributes his insightful connections to nature and people as a direct benefit of his autism. He simply doesn’t understand judging others and sees the good in all people—even the bullies who may laugh at him. “In return, they get my compassion because they need attention—and only know to look for it with a negative action.”
With all of his Zen-like ruminations that spring forth under the sacred tree, he drops into the subject of the cure for autism. “Really, it’s the farthest thing from my mind,” he says. “Of course, it is a good thing for science to figure out what is happening, but for me, there is a cure. It’s called acceptance.”
This brings me back to my struggles to accept autism, starting at Day One and Ground Zero with the diagnosis. Since Wyatt and I were late to the label table, only getting the official ASD diagnosis when Wyatt was 6, I was convinced my son was not typically autistic and I would be able to wrangle this diluted version of autism out of him with enough therapies and concoctions, together with my Type-A will. As the party of life continued around me, I was busy trying to escort autism out the back door before anyone took notice, so I could get back to the dance floor. I rarely mentioned so much as the word autism (except at IEP meetings to garner the needed supports at school)—a clear indication that I was locked in a state of serious denial. Hush was the word.
On my own private mandate, I was unaware of how my denial was impacting Wyatt. We were drifting away like a lost island. Typical peers avoided hanging with him due to his unique style of play, so we were removed from play date lists. We spent more and more time alone in the car driving to 1:1 therapists, which made for a lonely existence for him and for me, too. He had created an imaginary world of friends and spent most of his time at his internal Hogwarts. So we found ourselves role-playing wizards and villains in well-developed English accents. Since I was not accepting autism, we were on our own to navigate the unpredictable roller coaster of development. We lacked community when we needed it most, not because it wasn’t there, but because I wasn’t there.
In between our tightly scheduled après-school therapies, I heard about a theater arts program called The Miracle Project that was just beginning. Since I knew Wyatt was creative internally, I thought a program like this could foster his creativity outwardly.
When we first walked through the door at The Miracle Project, there was a profound distinction that both of us could feel but couldn’t pinpoint. At the center of this creative space was founder and director Elaine Hall, who masterfully moved around the room like a court jester in a kingdom of colorful children. Wyatt’s preconceived anxiety melted away as he joined the eclectic group of children in circle time. It finally came to me—whereas Wyatt usually walks into therapies to be “fixed” or to work on a task, here at The Miracle Project he is honored for exactly who he is, not for his potential or what he can or can’t do. There was a frequency of human joy that began with a palpable, unconditional acceptance.
After several sessions, I became aware of the many protocols that were invisibly woven into The Miracle Project’s theater curriculum. While Wyatt was playing in a loving and accepting environment, he was actually receiving a powerful concoction of the therapies he had been receiving individually, but now it was in a social dynamic. Without knowing it, he was refining fine and gross motor skills, sensory integration, speech & language and social skills. The two greatest challenges most common to autism are communication/self-expression and social dynamics; The Miracle Project seamlessly addresses both as the kids express themselves in lyrics, movement, and acting, and come together as a supportive community.
Up close and personal, I witnessed how the power of acceptance truly unlocks the child with autism. In his first season, Wyatt expressed how he was being bullied at school and how that felt. It was the first time he spoke about it. A song called “Sensitive” was written and a bully scene was incorporated in the show. When Wyatt hit his marks on stage come showtime, it was incredibly empowering for him to express his experience. He had a voice in a community that valued, listened, and accepted him.
It was wonderful to witness Wyatt’s growth as a self-expressing performer, but I could no longer ignore the tap on my shoulder. I had to look at my NON-acceptance of autism and how that mindset was hindering Wyatt’s development. I had created a dark cloak around autism, and in doing so, gave the impression to Wyatt that it was a negative word, a bad thing to have—something that had to be evicted before we could truly inhabit happiness. In my incessant efforts to remove autism from our lives, I was caught up in doing for my son, instead of being with my son.
Back at the Bodhi tree as it starts to sprinkle, Wyatt looks straight into my eyes and taps my other shoulder. “Mothers don’t need to feel the burden to fix or change their child. They need to accept and LOVE autism.”
It goes without saying that, as all parents, I have always loved every cell in my son’s body, mind, and soul. What I came to realize is that not accepting and not loving autism made Wyatt feel that there was a part of him that I was not accepting…not loving. That was a bulldozer of a shoulder tap. I became aware that the cure is right in front of me.
By Diane Isaacs, co-author with Elaine Hall of SEVEN KEYS TO UNLOCK AUTISM. In SEVEN KEYS, Key 2 is Acceptance—a key that Diane keeps handy on her personal keychain as a mom, friend, partner, and person.