Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Another Year of Magic

It's becoming an annual event at the Parkway West Middle School as I've presented their multiple times since 2011. The first presentation I did there was to the teachers, but then I spoke to the 6th grade class a few months later, and now each August since 2012 I've spoken to the 6th grade and once again I have such a feeling of hope for the future after my presentation.

I wrote yesterday that I was nervous, and I was. My school presentation is short at about 20-25 minutes and each story is central to the progression and I always fear I am going to leave something out. Thankfully, I did not, but the true magic in yesterday's presentation wasn't me but the questions asked.

In years past I had 50 minutes but this year it was opened up to 75 minutes because we've always ended with so many hands up and I was a bit worried that, perhaps, this would be too long. I finished my normal presentations and the first person I called on asked, "What inspired you to write your book?" What an awesome question! From there I was asked, "Yeah, I read a research paper that said that, if parents are older that the chances of autism go up, is this true?"

There were questions about me, questions about relatives, and I even asked a question to see how many people know a person on the autism spectrum and about 95% of the room raised their hands and I wish you could see that moment because at that moment a vacuum enters the room and there is a momentary silence that is unlike anything else as each person realizes autism isn't something that is isolated to their family. I then explain the number has gone from 1 in 1,500 in 1983 to 1 in 68 as of April.

The questions kept coming and I always enjoy my job, but when I'm being asked amazing questions about myself, or someone asks about a cousin they have, and it's asked with the deepest respect and has been well thought out, well, to say I enjoy what I do is an understatement. And that's where the final question led.

It's odd that it almost never fails that the last question is always a perfect way to end as a student mentioned that their mother is a teacher for those on the autism spectrum and one day she went there and after the experience she wondered if there was hope. As I composed my answer in my head I let out the biggest grin and I referenced a previous question that asked, "Why did you stop racing?" to which I had answered that I was glad that I had because, had I been racing, who would I help by winning races? After that I mentioned that just five years ago I still didn't fully believe in hope and I had, at that point, never given a presentation so, if you would have told me five years ago I would have done just 10% of things I have done I would have laughed at you and asked, "Why are you being so cruel? I'm never going to be capable of such things."

When it was over I still had 50 hands up and I wish I could've had the time to answer them all. I did have a dozen or so students stay around and ask questions for about 20 minutes afterwards which just reinforced the fact that this presentation was a hit and that, if we want to make the future a brighter place for those on the autism spectrum, we need to reach tomorrow's future today. The compassion, the quest for understanding, and the willingness to ask questions about autism impresses me unlike anything else. You should see it as when I first open up the floor no one wants to ask a question, but after one or two there's 100 hands up.

Driving away from the school I had to fight back tears because those moments where the impact is obvious is rare for me. I wasn't thinking about my presenting ability, or my ability to hold 300+ 6th graders attention for over an hour, but I was thinking back to a question that was asked in the middle of the question segment. This question went back to my "associative memory system" and the story about the soda can and he asked, "How are you going to remember us?" There was some silence because I had to get a hold of my emotions because the purity of this question was marvelous. However, I already knew the answer and I said, "By flags." The library at Parkway West has numerous country flags on display and for myself, in my memories, it is these flags that I remember the presentation to the 6th grade class. It wasn't until driving away, though, that I thought about this answer more and that each group of 300+ students I talk to will all lead different lives. Some may encounter autism, some may go into research (I can think of four students yesterday that I think want to go into the field) and others may never encounter it. Whatever the case may be they will have a better frame of reference because I'm allowed to come in and give my story. When thought about deeply, and when I think about the 1,200 total students I've spoken in that room with the flags, it's too emotional for me to express and share what it means.

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