Two twelve-year-old female clients with AS and I met Temple Grandin at a conference yesterday. Their excitement was contagious. We all felt like we were meeting a celebrity – and we were. We arrived early, hoping for a celebrity sighting before her morning presentation. We were in luck. After an autographed book and a photo op, we sat down to listen to her speak. During the Q&A, we quietly murmured about who would ask the question we had planned. Not surprisingly, both girls were nervous, so I volunteered: “Do you have any advice on bullying?” She shared that schools needed to increase their involvement. When she finished speaking, we milled to the bathrooms and one of the girls and I discussed whether or not we wanted to talk to Temple about our manuscript. We weren’t getting out hopes up, but we figured it couldn’t hurt.
Away we went to ask Temple if she’d be interested in reading it. I did the talking. Temple shared that she was in great demand and needed to know how our proposed book was unique. So, I pitched Pookie’s story. Temple listened as she continued to autograph. I shared that Pookie and I are attempting to promote social skills for girls, who are desperately under-represented on the spectrum, using visual cartoon strips that documented social faux pas. Temple listened and began asking about Pookie’s special talents and suggested we utilize those skills into venues for socialization.
As Temple talked, my client stood next to me. I realized quickly that a collaboration between Pookie and Temple was not going to happen, but I began to worry. Temple’s tone was harsh. She wasn’t intending to sound abrasive, but her post-presentation anxiety, her stress from multi-tasking both talking and signing, and her social skills were all colliding. Temple’s “solutions” for Pookie’s struggles were expensive (enroll in specialized classes to cultivate her special interest) and appeared simple (if you attend classes of this type, then you can meet people who shared your interest, and, ultimately, make friends). I tried to play devil’s advocate to some of Temple’s ideas but realized this was not fair to either of us. It was especially not helpful to my client who was listening. When she walked away, I feared the damage was done.
When the conversation with Temple ended, I walked over to my client, who was talking quietly to her mother. “What happened?” her mother worriedly asked. I shared the facts but was interrupted, “She didn’t listen to Jeanne. It’s not that easy to solve our problems.” My biggest fear had come to fruition. They’d waited and waited and waited for that moment when they met the star of their dreams only to be disappointed and, perhaps worse, to be minimized and misunderstood. There was no time for damage control because the next presenter was scheduled in moments.
During this presentation, I was distracted, planning for how to explain what happened to two girls who needed hope, vote of confidence, and positivity. While these needs were not eradicated, they were slightly tarnished and dampened. As Jennifer McIlwee Myers, I watched the girls. They were laughing and smiling, nodding their heads, and listening. They “got” her because she “got” them. They shared Asperger’s Disorder, a unique disability hidden beneath a not-so-unique exterior.
Over lunch, we talked about both speakers and what we had learned. I realized that this moment was the moment to make a critical point. “Autism is a spectrum for a reason. Temple is one type. Jennifer is another. They both have challenges and experiences similar and different to you. You can learn from them just liked I learned from you.”