Is Tying Your Own Shoes Really Important?

by Jill Wilbur Smith

This is one of my favorite pictures. I love it for a number of reasons.

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I love it because it reminds me of my dad and his infectious laugh. He’s laughing because—as was typical—Emily has her shoes on the wrong feet. It reminds me of his joyful attitude and his ability to always see the lighter side of life.

I love it because it shows Emily with her shoes on the wrong feet. Silly, I know. But significant. Significant because 1) she was independent enough to put on her own shoes, and 2) it didn’t matter to her that she hadn’t done it perfectly.

In this picture, Emily is wearing shoes that have Velcro closings because, at 5, she couldn’t tie her shoes. A few months earlier, I had worried about this fact in the same way I had worried in previous years about whether or not she would ever give up the bottle or successfully potty train. (Of course, she eventually did both of those things, and reached many other developmental milestones. Just sometimes a little later than her peers.)

Emily has always done things at her own pace. Sometimes behind her peers. Sometimes ahead of them. At 4, she taught herself to read.

One day, her preschool teacher asked her, “Emily, when are you going to learn to tie your shoes?” Emily replied, “I already know how to read, you mean I have to tie my own shoes, too?”

She had a point. So for a while I only bought her shoes with Velcro fasteners.

Eventually Emily learned to tie a shoelace, and she hardly ever wears her shoes on the wrong feet anymore. It’s good for me to look through the lens of time at reminders that things happen at a different pace for everyone.

Life isn’t a race to see who can get to the developmental finish line first. It’s a journey. If I spend all of my time focusing only on what’s at the end of the road, I’ll overlook the things that really matter. I’ll miss out on the moments of joy—like the vision of a fiercely independent little girl blazing her own way through life. And the laughter of a grandfather who is totally in love with her.

 

Odd Ducks Anonymous

By Emily Smith

As a young woman on “the Spectrum,” as all autism-like disorders may be dubbed, I am sometimes frustrated by the degree to which people will prematurely, and incorrectly, judge me as inept in the arena of sociability. Now, before I progress any further on that subject, let me assure you: people who judge me this way are often more correct in such judgments than I would always care to believe. Not entirely correct, mind; they’ve got a point. And as my maternal grandfather might’ve once said, if they part their hair right, it won’t show. A kinder way of saying, you might be onto something, good buddy, but I just don’t give a damn.

I suppose the best way to begin this massive endeavor called the Fractal, might be to make a small personal confession. They say the first step is admitting you have a problem— or, in my case, a quality that occasionally causes problems. As my “gentle readers,” you’re officially part of my group now, so let’s jump right into the chaotic roil. Fasten your seatbelts, everyone.

My name is Emily…

“HI, EMILY!”

And I am an odd duck.

What do I mean, exactly, when I declare myself an odd duck? Well, for one thing, I’m the kind of person who isn’t afraid to use an awkward and possibly outdated phrase like “odd duck” to get the proper point across. If anything, its awkwardness makes the phrase fitting, more opportune, almost charming in a rather dopey sort of way. I’m a painfully honest, right-up-in-your-face word blurter who cannot always restrain her internal dialogue to those safe little thought-bubble clouds that most of the populace carries around out of habit. This affords me a great deal of automatic stress relief, as well as a range of expressive freedoms; at least in the realm of interpersonal calm, I breathe rarefied air. Of course, the flip side of this is that I can hardly swing a dead cat in a circle without smashing into someone else’s delicate feelings. Heck, I might’ve just caught some grief for a dead cat joke there. Wouldn’t be the first time.

I’m also a self-professed geek, which doesn’t usually bolster my “image.” I’ve rolled an awful lot of funny-shaped dice in my time. I more often ponder “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” than “the real world, here and now.” It sometimes lands me in hot water, especially if someone is trying small talk. The world of imagining is big. Not more important; by no means haughty. Just big. Thinking big while talking small, you’ll find, lends a person the look of constant boredom with the world as it actually operates. As repercussions of geekdom go, this is about the only one that sometimes catches me wishing I were a little more “normal.”

Social awkwardness and/or geekness may deter people from learning my true personality, but I make an unswervingly loyal friend. A peer without peer, as it were. For loved ones who approach me with painful scars and burdensome personal secrets, I unconditionally drop my fog. I listen without judgment; I comfort without doubting motives or questioning sorrows. In my experience, neurotypicals rarely display this trait. They seek few social burdens. Perhaps they sleep better for it. How rare and valuable, then, must a seeker of social burdens prove.

My own seeking originally sprang from the fear that my friends were false and would leave me. At least in my youth, they were; and they did. I still fear losing those I love more than is healthy, but my fears more often give way to an appreciation for friendship that few could claim to match. That is what my autism means to me, and what I hope it may mean for others. My oddball exterior, when allowed its foibles, gives way to a gooey center. Call me a friend; it is yours.

 

Why a Good Label Can Help You Avoid Disappointment

by Jill Wilbur Smith

My younger daughter, Sarah, loves jellied cranberry sauce. Don’t judge. She developed her taste for it from me. (I don’t know if I’m drawn to it because of the taste, the texture, or the fact that it slurps from the can in a perfect cylinder with hieroglyphic rings etched around its center.)

When Sarah was 9 or 10, she came across jellied cranberry sauce on a salad bar. It was the first item she went for when she brought her plate back to the table. She shoveled a huge piece into her mouth—a bite she immediately spat into her napkin, wiping her tongue of the offending flavor.

She hadn’t discovered jellied cranberry sauce—but pickled beets.

Imagine her surprise and disappointment.  A nice label on the salad bar would have been useful.

That’s how I feel about labels. They serve a purpose. They let you know what you’re getting so you can avoid unpleasant surprises. Good for a salad bar, even better for a person with a developmental disability.

The day my daughter Emily was diagnosed with Asperger’s was one of the most liberating of my life. I had a name for her idiosyncratic behavior. The label helped me know what to expect from her so I wouldn’t be surprised by her conduct.

Let me be clear. Emily’s label isn’t an excuse for bad behavior or a free ticket to let others take care of her. It’s just another way of understanding who she is so that we can better help her navigate the world. And so that others know what they’re getting as well.

I often tell people that Emily is on the autism spectrum, that she has Asperger’s. I don’t say it to elicit pity, but as a way to clue them in about what they can expect of her.  It helps explain why she might not look them in the eye when they talk to her. It provides context for my elation when she gets her first job at 21. It reminds them not to be surprised if she reacts to a loud noise or a bright light in a more exaggerated way than most do.

Her label helps assimilate her into society in a way that’s appropriate for her.

Lots of people like pickled beets. They’re delicious. They can be used in a variety of recipes—but never as a substitute for jellied cranberry sauce.

Emily is delightfully delicious as well. She’s wicked smart and has a quirky sense of humor. Like pickled beets, she has a little bit of an edge about her that, paired with the right set of expectations, can be phenomenal. Just don’t expect a sugary sweet disposition that melts in your mouth and you won’t be disappointed.