Last week I celebrated my 50th birthday here in London, surrounded by friends and family members. It was a night of unmitigated revelry; an evening of champagne, laughter and music. The most unforgettable moment of the night, however, came when my 15-year-old son with Asperger's Syndrome got up and gave an impromptu speech.
He was witty, astonishingly articulate and heartfelt as he thanked me for remaining his stalwart advocate over the past decade and a half. "I would not be where I am if it weren't for you," he asserted in front of eighty guests. There was not a dry eye in the house.
In his speech, my son shared with his audience a series of vignettes, both dark and comical, illustrating some of the battles that we have fought together. These include battles with mainstream teachers to understand my son's dyspraxia and dysgraphia, confrontations with the local educational authority to ensure my son access to the appropriate schools and therapies and defending him at the playground during his early and very challenging years, when ignorant mothers accused him of bad behaviour and me of poor parenting. When my son, near the end of his discourse, compared me to Chuck Norris, I knew that I had finally gained his full respect!
My son's speech was a seamlessly crafted patchwork of comic episodes depicting me as the combatative special needs mother that I am (and have had to be). Interwoven into his vivid descriptions of "kung fu mama" (as my children call me) were light-hearted but earnest references to his own struggles to master reading social cues and learn appropriate behaviours. He came across as both vulnerable and self-aware.
This brings me to the next thing that struck me during my son's speech. It got me thinking about labels. "My parents keep telling me that I've got this thing -- ummm -- called 'Asperger's Syndrome', or whatever it is that you want to call it," he began. "What can I say? I just roll with it!" He spoke in a confident yet subtly self-deprecating manner, referring to his special needs label with a self-assuredness that put everyone in the audience at ease.
I have never understood why so many special needs parents are afraid of labels. I sometimes tease my son when he complains about his Asperger's Syndrome, calling it the "Rolls Royce of the Autistic Spectrum." If I am comfortable with his AS, then he will feel comfortable with it as well... and so, in turn, will be those with whom he interacts. My son does not, in my eyes, have so much a disability; rather, he possesses a gift that comes with built-in challenges. I am sure that, like all parents, I have failed in some ways; what I have succeeded in doing, however, is demystifying ASD and encouraging my son to feel comfortable about his Asperger's. It is an integral part of who he is, so why feel self-conscious about it? After all, I am not embarrassed about telling people that I am American (except when Sarah Palin happens to be running for Vice President) or that I have brown hair. It's who I am, and what you see is what you get!
Labels are not always bad. They are merely descriptive, not reductive.
These labels -- Asperger's, ADD, Dyslexic, Dyspraxic -- do not define or restrict our children, but they can help others to understand our childrens' unique challenges as well as their special gifts. This heightened understanding can bring our children support, respect and empathy.
I love my son, and therefore I love his Asperger's Syndrome. It is who he is. It is his photographic memory, his endearing lack of filter, his quick and quirky banter and his ability to name the director and actors appearing in any film from 1965 on. It is his essence and his beauty. Who knows? Perhaps Asperger's will be the new black?