This weekend was the North Carolina Special Olympics games. My eldest son competed on the Raleigh swim team, as he has for the last five or six years. This year he also competed on his high school’s swim team, and between the two he’s really improved his technique. He took first place for the 200 yard freestyle, with a time of 3:32.28.
He’s on the Special Olympics team because he’s autistic. I often think of the scene in Rain Man where Charlie is trying to explain his brother’s condition to the rural nurse. “He’s artistic?” she asks, confused. I often think of this scene because my son is both—he’s a high-functioning autist, and he’s also an extremely creative and artistic person. He draws in pencil, pastel, crayon and ink. He sculpts in clay, K’nex, and wire. In our hall hangs a crayon drawing he made of the space shuttle in orbit; the shuttle is shown top-down towards the earth, the way it really orbits, with the black underbelly facing towards the viewer. In the living room hangs a large tribal mask he made out of popsicle sticks. He also composes music on his computer, using software to weave tunes and instruments together.
There have been times, as he grew up, when I wondered if he would be able to move out and support himself when he reached adulthood. Sometimes he would seem completely disinterested in the world around him, even when it meant looking for traffic when crossing the street. Yet I was also aware that he would pay more attention when I wasn’t there to look out for him. I wanted to look out for him, but at the same time I wanted to give him room to stumble and make mistakes so that he could learn to look out for himself. I imagine it’s a balancing act faced by every parent.
But in the last year or so, he’s really blossomed. He’s begun taking an interest in, and responsibility for, the things going on around him. He took the initiative in getting himself signed up for Driver’s Ed, and was an active participant at his last IEP meeting. He’s making real progress in learning social skills, and more importantly he has realized that those skills can be learned, even if they don’t come naturally. His success on the swim teams has boosted his self-confidence tremendously.
I think every person, from cradle to grave, is a work in progress. We’re always changing and learning and, hopefully, growing. It’s really great to watch The Artist take the reins of his own development in hand and decide which way he wants to go.