You know life is going pretty good when you wake up in the morning thinking about baseball and soccer. The question I must have been tossing about in my sleep was one of the great questions of philosophy: why is baseball so popular in the United States and soccer so unpopular, when the reverse is true in the rest of the world?
The conclusion that woke me up (not an easy thing to do) was this: baseball is quintessentially American because the struggle that it represents is archetypal and etched deeply into the American psyche. Baseball is about leaving home when the odds are stacked against you, struggling to get through obstacles until hopefully, you finally return home victorious. Soccer, on the other hand, is about kicking a ball around endlessly with little hope of accomplishing anything, rarely using your head, and having your hands essentially tied behind your back.
Americans are uniquely obsessed with leaving home. I certainly was, as was almost everyone I knew. In fact, if I weren’t, my parents would have no shame in kicking me out so that I could learn to make it on my own. That push to rugged independence is what built the American landscape, and what still characterizes much of it.
Parents of children with autism in the United States have a unique challenge. Although it could be argued that all children, by definition, are unprepared to leave home, children with autism clearly, also by definition, do not have the requisite skills to make it on their own. So what is a parent to do?
Many American parents buy into the cultural myth that leaving home is always a good thing to do—that independence is the thing to be celebrated. (We don’t have a “Dependence Day,” do we?) It is made all the more attractive by the harsh reality that life for parents of children with disabilities is just harder than it is for others; in fact, they face Herculean obstacles. And then there is the fear that I hear parents tell me so often, that should something happen to them, how would their children survive?
The pressure parents feel is magnified by the extent to which they buy in to the myth that independence is always good. In many other cultures children with autism are thought to be a curse, bring shame to the family and are hidden away. Yet in these same cultures “typical” children are not expected to “leave home,” but instead are incorporated into the body of the family. This brings great relief for the biological parents, as children are raised by a combination of grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and siblings.
While we inevitably struggle to teach our children the skills they need to reduce the likelihood of their becoming victims, perhaps it behooves all of us to consider the benefits of a different cultural view, but without the shackles of shame. When there is a child transitioning to an adult with autism the larger community should be brought in where the extended family once was. Parents of children with autism, as do all parents, need a break. They need time and ways to find lives of their own, and to reclaim their identities. In a parallel way, they also need a way to “return home” to a comforting place.
We can’t always hit home runs each time we are at bat, and we can’t always make our homes the safe harbors we would like them to be. But perhaps the more players we have on our team, the better able each of us will be to play the game.