This week I’m at the 2014 US Autism and Asperger Association World Conference in Kansas City, MO. In preparation for this event, I was asked to organize 10 minute inspirational keynote talks to set the tone for the conference. Today it was an honor to share the stage with four incredible people; Raun Kauffman, Dr. Stephen Shore, Jennifer O’Toole and Benjamin Tarasewicz.
This is the transcript from my 10 minute talk.
I’ve been writing this letter in my head for quite some time now. It started out as a series of important things I’ve wanted to say to my Marauding Space Monkeys (my children, Madeline and Caleb) but in the process of preparing these thoughts for this talk I realized that it’s also a list of things I wish I would have heard as a child as I navigated a world that didn’t quite get me.
“Dear Madeline and Caleb (My Marauding Space Monkeys),
One day, in my second grade art class we were given cardboard pieces, glue and aluminum foil. The teacher asked us to create a low relief abstract design. I recall my classmates cutting out a variety of geometric forms and assembling them with some, but little variation from the sample. I wanted to do something different. So I thought back to the conceptual works of art that I had been exposed to, some of them exhibited in Kansas City at the Nelson Atkins Museum. I designed a simple form, with the raised text, “it is.” When I handed it in, the teacher scolded me for “not following the directions.” Failure. Now I look back, from my perspective as a university art professor and I recognize the teacher’s intolerance of difference blinded her to seeing the potential in me.
This will be hard to hold on to, but it’s truth. You define you. Only you can define who you are, and what you will become. Others you trust are only advisors, and the rest, don’t give them any more energy than necessary. You deserve to take up space in this universe and the universe is improved when you contribute the results of your existence within it. You are Star Stuff incarnate. Don’t allow someone to disrespect or shame you because of your desire to focus on the things that matter to you, or pathologize your special interests as perseverance behavior that needs to be extinguished. Use your fascinations as internal motivation to build skills and expertise necessary to lead a fulfilling and productive life, however that is defined in your mind.
Sometimes it will seem the odds are stacked against you. But having challenges can give you a sense of humility, an awareness of needed personal growth and your response to these challenges might provide important clues to understanding how others may be feeling in similar situations. Don’t mistake humility for humiliation, the internal or external voices that berate, or bully you to feel small and worthless. Some of us are riddled with fear, anxiety and adrenal stress, I know I am, but don’t let the fear stop you from living your life to the fullest. Courage is not the absence of fear, but the willingness to act in spite of it. Continuing to pursue your goals, being tenacious in your efforts will lead you to surpass everyone’s expectations, sometimes even your own. Remember, half of success is just showing up.
Adolescence was rough. Pressure to conform was excruciating, but during that time life-changing things happened to me. I met my best friend and chosen brother Joe, and I found my passion for photography. Joe and I bonded through our shared interest in photography and together we persisted through a turbulent youth, emerging with a skill base that shaped our futures. Later in high school, I met your mom — a force of nature herself, and the person who has helped me become who I am today. Please understand that you don’t need a whole pile of fair weather friends, sometimes you just need one or two, the kind you trust with your life. Random acts of kindness to strangers are laudable, but forgiveness of a grievous error in friendship is so precious that its value cannot be determined.
Find love, true love. But don’t be fooled into thinking there is only one person in this world who is your soul mate, that can make you feel desperate when there is really no need. Be wary of people who want you to change the way you look, or to be more like them. There are many such people out there and you really need to let Mom help you figure out who is who — she is brilliant at this sort of thing.
Life can throw some real hard balls. When you experience cosmic disappointment or devastating grief, don’t give into bitterness and rage. Indulging rage, even for a second, damages relationships and darkens the vulnerable tenderness within you. Rage is a tough genie to put back into the bottle.
Question everything but pick your battles carefully. Not every battle needs to be fought, and not every battle fought needs to be won. Sometimes, losing the battle to win the war, fighting a hopeless battle in support of the underdog, or choosing peace over victory is the right strategy.
So you understand, I started the Facing Autism project because I wanted to use my talents to advocate for others. I wanted to ignite the power of imagery to humanize the autism prevalence statistics and to convey my deep concern about the impact of environmental toxicity on human health and development. I feel like I have contributed to the larger conversation about autism in the US and in the process, I have found a diverse group of amazing people with whom I belong. Not a small thing for a person like me. But my choices have come at a cost as they often do when following a passion that not everyone values. I regret nothing.
Your future uncertainties must be met head on with innovation, a willingness to adapt, and fierce determination. Even in adversity, work hard to see possibility in others. Black and white thinking misses so many opportunities for collaboration. BREATHE. Be present in the moment. Quieting your mind and soul will make space for intentional decision making, critical thinking and abundant creativity.
Create. FOR THE LOVE OF ART, do whatever it is that makes you, YOU. Do it, and don’t let anyone stop you.”
Love you better than broccoli, and to Planet X and back!
Dad (and Mom)