“I’m On The Spectrum”

I just latched my seatbelt to settle in for the five-hour plane ride from San Diego when the younger man sitting next to me started an innocent conversation with the question, “Are you going to New York for fun or business?”

I replied by saying that I was on my way to the east coast for a speaking tour to help parents and teachers understand children, especially children who are highly sensitive, have been diagnosed with ADHD, oppositional defiance disorder or just are challenging to figure out. He asked if I talk about kids with autism or Asperger’s. “Do you have an interest in that?” I responded. He had my rapt attention. “I have Asperger’s.” he declared. “I’m on the spectrum.”

And that’s the way the conversation began. We spoke for hours. I was thrilled to have this opportunity to speak with a young adult who was willing to answer my questions with such honesty. Within a short time we were deep in a heart to heart. I asked him what it was like when he was a little boy. “I couldn’t look in people’s faces. It was too intense.” He was aware that his behavior brought out strong reactions from other people but he didn’t understand what he was doing wrong.

He recalled how his preschool teacher came to the house to discuss his ‘condition’ with his parents. Even though he read early he could sense his mom’s concerns as she worried about him. The worst part, he earnestly explained, was feeling like there was something wrong with him, not trusting himself because he seemed to always be doing or saying something inappropriate and having no understanding of how to change.

I asked him what he wished someone would have told him when he was a little kid and he said, “If someone had just said to me that you can be heard, you can say what you need to say…but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to get what you want….because as a child they were synonymous. Being heard and getting what you wanted meant the same thing. If somebody had just helped me realize that they were different, that might have been helpful.”

When it came to his inner world he shared that he was confused and scared and there was nobody to tell him what he was feeling was real, that it was OK, that he was safe and that he was understood.

He went on to describe his torment when being forced to participate in team interactions and how much he thrived with the individuality of martial arts. He shared how he loved to climb trees and walk through the forest near his home. He needed the solitude.

I was touched by his deep sensitivity and how safe he felt to share his inner world with me. I told him about another young man whose mom wrote a book called, “AWETISM” and how she came to understand the way her little boy experienced life in his own unique perspective.

I interviewed this mom several years ago when I hosted my radio show, Leading Edge Parenting. I asked my guest to share some of the poignant moments when she sensed that she connected with her son and was able to move past the fear and worry that come with raising a child on ‘the spectrum.’

She told a story about how her son would step off the school bus and refuse to come into the house unless she allowed him to first climb the tree in their front yard. After giving up arguing with his stubborn insistence she decided to let him climb the tree. She sat down on the ground under the tree to wait for him and she suddenly ‘got it.’ It felt so peaceful, so grounding, so connected to nature…. Her son needed this time after the stress of school. “Tree time” became one of the favorite times of their day.

I asked my new friend if having Asperger’s was a similar experience to being Highly Sensitive. I explained that high sensitivity is characterized by a heightened awareness of life as it pours in through our senses and that highly sensitive people experience social interactions and feelings more intensely than neuro-typical people.

His response was: “It’s not about people being more sensitive or less sensitive. It’s more about that we are raised in a society that teaches us to be numb to the fact that we are not whole with nature but some of us don’t have the ability to turn off the switch and be numb.”

The concept that society teaches us to be numb, that it encourages us to ‘tune out’ negative feelings and unkind behavior and that “some of us don’t have the ability to turn off the switch and be numb” rattled around my mind for the last two hours of our flight and I am still reflecting on the way we teach children to be numb.

It occurred to me that more and more children are being born highly sensitive and ‘on the spectrum.’ What if the challenges they bring are not seen as a negative but as a type of ‘energy field’ that holds up a mirror to the way we relate to our world and forces us to deal with the things our society has numbed until now… the way we treat the planet and nature, the way we judge each other, the way we relate to all beings, the way we look at education and success…

Perhaps life on the spectrum is really about living our days in full dimension and embracing ALL that life brings. As parent coaches Melissa and I know that what parents need to do to enrich any relationship with their children is step more into their full authenticity. These children have come to stop the numbing culture and catalyze us into whole-hearted living.

While it is a challenge to figure it all out, that plane ride has given me a whole new perspective!