Seeing the Forest for the Trees

To see the forest for the trees means to “detect an overall pattern from a mass of detail; to see the big picture.” In his talk at Boston University this past Saturday, Tony Attwood mentioned that this isn’t necessarily an Aspie’s strength.

He went on to say, (and I paraphrase), Aspies are good at attending to details but can have considerable difficulty perceiving and understanding the overall picture or gist. Think of an individual looking at objects in a room through the opening of a rolled up piece of paper. Their view is a series of isolated circles rather than a whole room. Aspies often notice details others miss because they don’t always filter out the ‘uneccessary information’, ie, they aren’t always able to tease out what is relevant versus what is redundant. This can be helpful or unhelpful, depending on the situation. 

This certainly rings true over here in our household. But it also describes the public conversation about autism, which is, at times, both helpful and unhelpful, depending on the situation. It’s great that we’re talking about it. It’s great that more and more people share more and more perspectives and personal stories. But I also think, autism conversations, often can’t see the forest for the trees.

Autism spectrum is a phrase used to encompass a fantastically complicated  assortment of expressions of a neurological disorder/condition/difference. It’s like going to the hardware store and asking for a gallon of paint. What color? the friendly gal in the red apron asks you. Blue, you answer. It’s true. You need blue. To match the color in your son’s bedroom. But it’s not a very helpful word. There are countless formulas for countless shades, hues, tints, and intensities of blue. Try picking one at random. Chances are slim to none that it will match what you’ve got at home.

Chances are slim that what I describe about my Aspie son will match what you’ve got at home with your Aspie son, or daughter, in any given situation. Chances are slimmer to noner that what I describe about my son on the autism spectrum will match what you’ve got at home with your ASD tween. Is this obvious? I hear it said enough out there in the ‘autism community,’ yet still, the outrage, hurt or confusion erupts and bubbles around more often than not when divergent stories are shared side by side.

I would never pretend that I can understand what it’s like to parent a child with more ‘classic’ autism, a child ‘more profoundly affected by autism’, a non-verbal child, a child with severe self-injurous behavior, a child who doesn’t know that what the parent offers now in the form of medicine or treatment will alleviate the pain and discomfort that child is experiencing later. I don’t know what that’s like.

For that matter, I don’t know what it’s like to interact with a school system that is supportive or combative, progressive or dangerously backward in educating autistic students. I don’t know what it’s like to having more than one child, on or off the spectrum, how to divide my time and attention, respond constructively to sibling rivalry, or rely however sporadically on the built-in ‘social therapy’ siblings can provide to their spectrum brothers or sisters. I don’t know what it’s like to balance parenting and working outside the home. I don’t know what it’s like, really, to have any other situation that the one I have, with a home-schooled son and a home-officed husband.

We’re ridiculously lucky. We have problems and short-comings, good days and bad days. But I feel actively grateful on a daily basis for the life we’re leading. And I could never presume to tell anyone else how to do anything else. (Except if you’re my really good friend. Or husband. Or son. Or family member. Ah, then, I have a lot to say about what you ought to do. I try not to. I’ve got the opinions and the judgments and the controlling, know-it-all-itis at times. But I’ve also got the sense to know that if I want to keep those relationships healthy–or rather, keep them, period–I’d better be willing to look at that shit and let it go.)

So, who am I to tell a parent of an ASD child not to grieve? Not to struggle with acceptance? Not to hurt or feel envy or disappointment? Who am I to say, love autism or hate it? That your kid IS his autism or that it’s something that he or she HAS? Who is anyone to say, you ought to do this or that, say this, believe this, try this, abandon that?

All I am is someone who, for whatever reason, has felt compelled to blog, however sporadically, about my own struggle to live an authentic life. I want to move toward greater and greater freedom. Personal freedom. It’s a spiritual journey. One that is about being willing to look at where I feel stuck and doing what I can to loosen, or untie, the knots.

Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. I believe that. I can’t, nor would I want to, avoid pain. But I can avoid staying stuck in the painful place. And what I’ve learned over the last eight years is that Tito having Aspergers has taught me more about myself than I could have ever learned if he didn’t have Asperger’s. And I thank the heavens for that learning. And I thank the heavens for him, this boy, this startling, amazing, funny, quirky, brilliant, wise, warm, fascinating, challenging, exasperating boy for coming into my life and giving me the opportunity to stretch and grow. He may have a different way of looking at things, of seeing things, of understanding things, of caring about things. The feelings that rise up in me when I struggle with understanding, teaching, guiding accepting, and letting go are mine, all mine. We may have differently-wired brains, he and I. But we, all of us, every person on the planet, share the same pulsing heart.

What I want, certainly what I’ve tried to do these last eight years, is to accumulate and integrate tools to help me navigate out of the dark, constricted emotional/psychological places to the wide open views. It’s the journey from the closed mind to the open mind. Because an open mind means an open heart.

And an open heart is the wisest mind we have.

8 thoughts on “Seeing the Forest for the Trees

  1. Gosh, I love your writing. Selfishly, I want you to write every day.

    I think one of the original meanings of “to suffer” was “to endure.”

  2. “And an open heart is the wisest mind we have.”

    Professionalism is all about using your brain…which, it becomes apparent in time, has decidedly limited powers.

  3. Amen. I have been here reading for a long while.. being inspired for years. Your ability to write these beautiful words is a a gift, and to be the receiver of your wisdom in it’s amazing package makes me one lucky lady. thank you Kyra.

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