My Daughter the Heyoka
Last week, A. had her first session of the new year with her therapist. It didn't go very well, since it synced up with the first day of school, and the last thing A. was interested in was talking about the social adjustments she knew she would soon have to make in the classroom, the grueling work of social interaction that so often exhausts her. Her therapist basically asks her to put even more work into this activity, and while she can tolerate it most days, she was having a difficult time being cooperative considering all of her recent changes in routine along with the fact she simply wasn't looking forward to going back to school. So, they struggled some, and the therapist eventually decided that she would spend the time talking with me about what I can do to help A., instead.
I generally dread these conversations, partially because I know there's a lot more work I could do in order to push A. further outside her comfort zones, and partially because our conversations almost always put me on the defensive and make me irritiable. I'm guessing this is probably because she often hits marks close to home and makes valid and useful points, even if it's not what I want to hear, because it's human nature to balk at the very thing you know you most need to do. But it is also because, despite the fact that I feel she "gets" autism and the way my daughter's mind works better than any therapist I've ever seen before, I don't feel like she entirely "gets" the world that many high-functioning autistic and aspie people grow up in -- the all-too-familiar world of freaks, nerds, weirdoes, and partners-in-crime, the world where you make and cling to deep friendships because these are the people who understand and accept you for who you are. I don't think she gets the power of those bonds, the richness of that culture, and the importance of nurturing those friendships.
The piece of the conversation that triggered my defenses last week was one where the therapist suggested I needed to help A. expand the the subjects she is interested in, that it's really a "surprising" and good thing that A. has a group of friends at school who are all interested in the same things as her, but that, as girls, they will soon lose interest in these subjects and activities, and have more interest in things like cell phones and boys. She suggested that if A. couldn't make a similar transition, her friends would grow distant from her, and she could be left behind.
And maybe that's true. Maybe there's every danger that this little group of awesome, quasi-misfit, creative and quirky girls that hang out with A. and share antics with her both in the real world as well as over the Internet, will eventually tire of art and anime and Internet memes and want to spend their time talking about cell phones and boys. But, quite frankly, I would be very surprised. I will totally confess that I may be playing a game of transference here, that it is possible I'm not seeing the world for the way it truly is, but I can't help but have a sense of recognition with these girls. They remind me so much of myself and the group of friends I discovered and clung too in high school, most of whom are still among my friends to this very day. We were drawn together by comic books, by role-playing games, by an interest in fantasy and vampires and show tunes, by walking out of step with the rest of world and listening to our own different and beautiful drumbeats, but we clung to each other because we felt a deep sense of belonging when we were together. We created universes together, we made magic together, and, yes, we carried a deep mythology about our own separate selves and our relationship to the rest of the world, but it was a mythology that helped us make sense out of what was, in essence, a very nonsensical time in our lives. In the process, some of the most treasured and pivotal friendships of my life developed, deepened, and flourished. Maybe I'm wrong, but I feel like that same quality exists in the friendships A. is fostering today.
And, outside of this group of misfit friends, A. has cultivated friendship with others. The girl who proudly proclaims to be A.'s best friend -- D. -- really has nothing in common with her at all. D. likes to play outside, likes sports, and is beginning to be interested in things like boys and cell phones. She doesn't share A.'s narrow scope of interests, and she is amazing at pushing A. outside of her comfort zone and making her do things she wouldn't normally do -- like play outside, or directly interact with people about personal things. She is fiercely loyal to A., and A. is fiercely loyal to her -- in fact, D. recently went through some pretty dark situations on a personal level and was grateful for the support she received from A. through all of that. She knows A. is autistic, and she's her peer mentor at school, helping her make sense of that crazy and confusing world. Even though they don't even hang out in the same social circles, they have each other's backs, and that's the same quality of friendship I was talking about earlier -- they've forged deep bonds, and I would be surprised to ever see those broken by something as simple as differing interests.
Again, I may be incredibly optimistic here, but there are few things I believe in as strongly as I believe in the power of friendship. In my own life, friends have always formed a network of surrogate family members to whom I have often turned for support and nurturing. I guess, when it comes down to it, I feel like A.'s therapist isn't giving these kids enough credit. She suggests that friendships at this age are fickle and easily broken, and I just don't buy that. At least not with this group of girls. I think that it is possible to form deep and meaningful relationships at this age, and I think that A. has been fortunate enough to do just that. Of course, I admit I could definitely be proven wrong on this point.
But outside of the friendship issue, I feel as if I do struggle ideologically with some of A.'s therapist's viewpoints. For example, when she works with A., one of the things she does is use a lot of sarcasm to try to get A. used to it, to try to get her to understand it. Lord knows that's been one of the major themes of our household, particularly after Thomas entered our lives, considering that playful sarcasm is a major form of affection for his family, and we wanted to help A. understand what that meant and how it was used. All the same, I don't particularly care if A. ever learns to use sarcasm herself, or if sarcasm becomes second nature for her to understand. Let's face it -- sarcasm is actually a pretty mean societal phenomenon. We're encouraged to literally say things we don't mean in order to convey a cavalier, devil-may-care attitude about any situation that comes up. We're distancing ourselves from both situations and people, and sometimes sarcasm can really hurt. Why is it a bad thing that my daughter stands in opposition to that, that she can say, "please don't use sarcasm with me," as a way to request that people around her talk straight, to the point, and from the heart? Sarcasm is a way we can easily sidestep the truth in conversation. Isn't speaking without sarcasm a much more honest and courageous way to interact with the world?
A week before my daughter was born, I was convinced I was going into labor. I was having regular, painful contractions throughout the course of the day. That afternoon, an intense thunderstorm came into the area, and we had to drive through it to get checked out at the birthing center -- where, of course, they let me know that I hadn't made any progress toward labor at all. I'd been struggling to settle on a name for my daughter, but when the storm came, I knew that had to be a part of her name -- I had a sense that this lightning and thunder was a part of her personality. So, when I named my daughter, I gave her a name that, in Gaelic, means "Dream Storm."
In the tradition of the Plains Indians, there is this phenomenon called heyoka
. Essentially, a heyoka is a sacred contrarian who does everything backwards and in opposition to accepted social norms. They have been described as the "upside-down, forward-backward, icy-hot contrary."
Heyokas are often considered to act rudely and inappropriately, such as laughing at inappropriate times, poking fun at serious situations, and generally challenging the larger society's expectations, demonstrating how it limits their behavior. Heyokas are spiritually associated with the Thunderbird or lightning spirits, and some accounts explain how one of the heyoka's jobs was to protect the tribe from fierce storms.
I know I didn't grow up in the tradition of the Plains Indians, but I can't help but sometimes see my daughter as fulfilling the role of the heyoka in our own society. She definitely has a contrarian spirit, and whenever she acts in opposition of a standard social norm, I can't help but wonder -- is this particular social norm still important or valid? When my daughter bluntly points out when someone says something they don't mean in a sarcastic tone of voice, am I not learning that direct speech is a more effective and compassionate means of communication? When she sings and dances in public or speaks with loud and booming enthusiasm on a topic in a crowded area, am I not learning the importance of passion and excitement despite the opinions of peers?
Certainly, I understand that I have to do things to help my heyoka lightning-spirit daughter adjust to the world. I know I have to, at times, reign in her crazy voices and numerous quotations, help her understand how others might perceive or misinterpret her actions, and assist her in branching outside the realm of her narrow interests and obsessions; certainly her therapist is qualified to help equip us both with the tools for accomplishing these tasks. That being said, I think it's also important to remember what we as a society can learn from heyokas like my daughter -- that the world is more than it seems, that we should always challenge our assumptions, and that friendship can be one of the most powerful forces on the planet if only we open up to, accept, and nurture the important relationships we develop along the way.