I was going to wait until I start my autism blog for this, but this is as good a place as any for me to address something here – and it is about a misconception about what I do for a living. I provide therapeutic services to children and adults with autism in the areas of sports and exercise, social skills, and academics. It’s not that people always misunderstand what I do, but they often have some preconceived notions about it.
The reactions I get are sometimes very positive – some people really appreciate what I do and find it very interesting. For every time that I have received that reaction, though, there have been many times that people have had reactions that fall into one of the categories below. Surprisingly, it’s often women who have these reactions – sometimes on a first date or upon an initial conversation that starts with “What do you do?” Then after I answer, the follow up response is something like:
“Oh, that must be so hard.” They say this with a really pained expression on their face. (Remember those commercials a few years ago – the Bitter Beer Face?) They say it as if to say, “Wow, I would never be able to do that, and I would never want to do that. How unfun and boring.” Their body language gives away the fact that the last thing they would want to do is work with kids on the autism spectrum. I try to explain that it is hard sometimes but it’s also a lot of fun.
Kids with autism are like neurotypical kids except that they have different skills and abilities. They are just more extreme. To put it simply, if you don’t like children with autism, then you don’t like children. And I’m surprised at the number of women in the Washington area who don’t like children. Your job, whether it is being a lawyer, a pharmaceutical sales representative, or a consultant, would be unfun and boring to me. While you’re watching the clock, I’m in the flow and time is flying. So have fun with your spreadsheet.
(I don’t mean to imply that career oriented women aren’t good with children. You don’t have to be a teacher, a pediatric nurse, or a volunteer to be good with kids. And people need to make money, and careers should be important. But if you think that your career is more important than anything else, and you don’t value the idea of having any experience with kids, that’s a little extreme.)
There is also an attitude that people have about children and adults with disabilities that they are to be felt sorry for. While this may be a normal initial reaction, once you get over it, you can’t feel sorry for the kids too much because if you do then you’ll spoil them and let them get away with just about anything.
“Wow…what you do is really great. That must be really…rewarding.” However, they say this with a hushed tone, and look at you as if you are from another planet. “How could someone want to do something like that?” I usually follow this one up with, “Yes, but it’s also a lot of fun.” One time, I actually had someone reply back to me, “No, you mean rewarding, but not fun.” I responded back, “No, I mean fun.”
The tone with which they say, “That must be rewarding,” again, seems to imply, “Wow, that must be so tough.” “Rewarding” happens when you help a charity when you don’t really want to, but you make a sacrifice in order to achieve some good. Like serving food to the homeless. For me, that would be boring and tedious, though certainly honorable. What I’m doing isn’t unselfish – it’s selfish – because what I do is highly enjoyable.
“Oh, you’re a do-gooder.” Usually they just think this instead of say it outright, but recently someone I met said that exact sentence to me, in a condescending tone. She followed it up with, “I work in the hotel industry. I get people drunk for a living.” The implication seemed to be, “Oh, you’re a goody two-shoes. I like to party and have fun.” Now you might say that was just being self-deprecating and was actually putting what I do on a pedestal. But no, in this case it was condescending. I agree that partying is fun. I did it from the time I was in college through my early 30s. Is that not enough? I partied with the best of them and had a lot of fun. But you can only do so much of that.
Playing sports is also fun. Catching a touchdown pass in a coed football game, hitting a backhand winner in tennis, scoring a goal in soccer, or throwing a long pass in ultimate Frisbee are all fun.
Going to a great concert is fun. So is seeing your favorite team win a big game. Traveling to new places is fun. Being at a party when things are rolling is fun. Seeing a great movie is fun.
And teaching kids is also fun. If you can’t appreciate teaching a child to learn to read, converse, do math, play sports for the first time, develop a sense of humor, learn to make friends, and make progress in all these areas, all the while improving behaviors, then I feel sorry for you. If you think that working with the coolest kids in the world isn’t fun, then what kind of a parent will you be? These kids are miracles and miracles are happening, although slowly.
It’s like trying to explain music to someone who doesn’t get it. If you like Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” the Eagles’ “Hotel California,” Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” or any number of inspiring songs, and you try to explain that to someone and they don’t get it, then, well, they just don’t get it. So if you don’t like kids, then you don’t like kids. Just admit it.
Of course, many people say these things with the best of intentions and really do admire this type of work, but many women have a high regard for men who work in more traditional roles such as lawyers or salesmen. I’m not looking for admiration – I just don’t want someone to look at what I do as a negative. You don’t have to love my job, but don’t hate it.
My point is that this work is not only rewarding, but it is also fun. In his book, “Authentic Happiness,” psychologist Martin Seligman says that using your strengths to forward knowledge, power, or goodness is great. Doing all of that while you’re having fun is the best of both worlds. So doing kind and fun actions creates a lot more satisfaction than doing things that are only kind, or things that are only fun.
Or you can sit in your office and do neither.