I have been thinking recently about the Bean going to school and what he might be able to achieve academically. For some reason it is very important to me for him to be able to do well at school despite his autism. With a bit of introspection I think I understand why I have this need and perhaps I need to steel myself for a bit of emotional pain if academic achievement is beyond the Bean.
So why is this important to me?
Well I think it’s to do with my own conditions of worth. In person centred psychotherapy “conditions of worth” are the things about ourselves that we believe give us value. These are generally formed in our early years and tend to stick with us throughout our lives.
Now for me when I was growing up I was never particularly good at sport, I tried and enjoyed various sports but my natural athletic ability is limited. Neither was I particularly good looking and popular with the girls. Don’t get me wrong I don’t consider myself bad looking but equally I’m no Brad Pitt. In a similar vein my artistic and musical ability were average and I was not one of those naturally charismatic and amusing people that everyone just seems to love.
What, however, I did have was brains. I was always one of the clever ones at school so despite my average abilities in other areas it was academic achievement and being a smart arse that gave me my main conditions of worth. This was what made me valuable, special and it was what I could console myself with if I did get the girl I wanted or failed to make it onto a sports team. At least I was smarter than those other guys! Also, being smart, I secretly knew that I’d probably be the boss of the sporty popular types when we grew up, so that kind of made up for the fact that they got all the girls at school!
The thing with conditions of worth is that they tend to also sculpt what we value in other people as well. For me I have always admired smart people. Anyone who can challenge me intellectually I admire. Someone who has a Phd is far more impressive to me than someone who can run a sub 3 hour marathon even though there are far more people with PhD’s than sub 3 hour marathon runners.
So obviously this translates to what I aspire for my children to achieve. In our pre-autism world I used to have little day dreams about how I would teach my kids the wonders of the universe. About how I would fill their young minds with the amazing facts about the cosmos, nurture their philosophical thinking and generally turning them in to irritating smart arsed kids like I was. This was what I could give as a father, thus would be my special contribution this would be the special gift that my boys would receive from me. It was these things that would give me special worth as a daddy.
The A bomb
So then the autism bomb was dropped on our world. Suddenly all my aspirations for the Bean were thrown into doubt. On the one hand there are lots of examples of extremely gifted and clever autistic people but on the other there were the cold hard facts that over 50% of kids with autism have significant learning difficulties, that only 15% manage to hold down full time jobs and only 30% ever achieve financial independence from their parents.
My mind clung to the hope that the Bean might be one of those Einstein / eccentric professor types, clearly on the spectrum but equally obviously brilliant in his field. Alternatively, having worked in the IT business for many years perhaps he would end up being like many of the techies I worked with? Socially inept, limited topics of conversation and a bit smelly but also brilliant at what they did, very well paid and above all a happy bunch. As a self-confessed, dungeon and dragons playing geek myself it would be no bad fate to have an uber geeky sepctrumy boy for a son. In fact it would be kind of cool.
Blissful ignorance is a luxury not available
Sadly though one of the problem with having the condition of worth of “being clever” is that it means blissful ignorance is hard to achieve. Having researched the topic of autism well, I know the stats and I cannot ignore them there is a very real chance that Bean will never achieve academically. The chances are that he will always be significantly behind his peers and whilst he may excel in some areas, over all he is likely to be below average academically. The uber geek techies and the brilliant professors are only a small fraction of the autistic community.
Another luxury bites the dust
The problem is that this is all my shit. Just because this is what I happen to value does not mean it’s all there is to value. I simply need to re adjust my expectations a bit. I do not have the luxury of self-pity because I have a little boy that needs me. Obviously I’m not going to write off my son simply because he probably won’t achieve what I wanted him to. I simply need to work out what he can achieve and push him towards reaching his full potential, whatever that might be. If that potential is lower than I would like then that’s my failure not his.
The cruel lure of hope………
The optimist in me, however, still wants to strive for the stars with the Bean. If one aims high it is true that one runs the risk of disappointment and that can be cruel. If, however, the goals are set too low the underachievement is guaranteed. I’d rather risk disappointment than guarantee underachievement any day.
So, despite the facts, despite the bad statistics and despite my rational mind telling me that it’s probably not going to happen I will still continue to believe that the Bean can achieve well academically. Cos you never know, it’s just possible that he will exceed all expectations. I know this is not a rational belief to hold and it is the closest thing to a faith based position that I have but “faith” in this sense can have some justification.
Our end goal is for the Bean to achieve his full potential. If we have faith that he can do well and match his neurotypical peers then this will inevitably rub off on others who have contact with the Bean. Of particular importance are the teaching professionals involved with him. If I even start to write him off, or I begin to operate under the assumption that he won’t do that well at school then how can I expect teachers to not do the same? On the other hand if I have high expectations for my son and enthusiastically encourage him to learn then perhaps this will rub off on his teachers as well?
Faith? What!?……. Yuk!!!
Pretty much every inspirational story I have read about kids who achieve despite their autism involves amazing parents. Parents who didn’t accept the conventional wisdom that their kids where doomed to academic mediocrity. These stories almost always have a mother (it’s normally the mum) that fights and pushes for access the education they know their child needs. It is these parents who make the difference and who, it seems, inspire, cajole, and push the educational establishment into meeting their kid’s requirements. And fuelling these individual crusaders is a strong faith that their kids can do wonderful things, a faith that exists despite all the evidence to the contrary. Without that faith these people could not have the energy required to do the things they need to and so it seems I must adopt a faith based position as well.
The problem for me with all this I have always tried to eliminate faith from my life. I firmly believe that all my beliefs should be rational and justifiable. All humans, in my opinion, should strive to base all their beliefs only on the evidence and if that evidence points them to truths that they don’t like then it is the duty of the rational human to accept those truths. I have, on many occasions, defined “faith” as merely another word for stupidity or gullibility, after all what else do you call it when someone believes things without good reason? Believing things on faith is basically being deliberately stupid and irrational, that for me is a really bad thing.
So here I am: an arch rationalist, a sceptic and free thinker, one who has argued time again and again that irrational faith based beliefs are the ultimate sin in this world. Here I sit forced to conclude that faith is probably exactly what my little boy needs. Again I guess I need to “get over myself” and muster the will to engage in the necessary cognitive dissonance that my boy needs. I must “act as if” I truly believe that the Bean can achieve academically as well as any other child. I must have this faith for his good. Well at least I have rationally justified why I must have irrational faith! At least that’s something.