Cheers to 2014!

Participants from Cooking Level III

Participants from a Cooking Level III class at the Alyssa Burnett Adult Life Center

While the rest of the world buzzes with excitement today, making plans for the evening, reflecting on the days behind us and raising a glass to what the bright New Year may bring, today I have a different vision of what it is we should be ‘cheers-ing’ to. Naturally, we are all compelled by the freshness a new year brings; new horizons for being better, having a clearer focus, ridding bad habits and welcoming new opportunities. 

Last night, as I sat down to reflect on my year, the celebrations, hardships, people and things, that made it so rich and beautiful, my staff sent me a Ted Talk called, ‘How autism freed me to be myself’, featuring Rosie King, a sixteen-year-old girl with autism. Rosie eloquently shared common misconceptions and stereotypes about autism, and went into the challenges of being on the spectrum. Most of these challenges, it seems, aren’t internal struggles, but rather challenges about how the world isn’t ready to wholly accept the diversity of people on the spectrum. She touches on how we all try so hard, regardless of having a disability or not, to fit into a little box with a perfect little label. Why is everyone so worried about being ‘normal’?  

Her words took me back to one of the more influential moments of 2014 (among MANY). I had the beautiful opportunity to listen to a panel of individuals on the spectrum, who presented at an Autism 200 Series lecture to a group of educators, parents, doctors and students.

The panel consisted of a broad spectrum of individuals with varying backgrounds, interests, abilities and ages. The adults were asked many questions about what it’s like living with autism (one of whom responded with, ‘What does that even mean!? Autism is all we’ve ever known. It would be like me asking you what it’s like not having autism’. Touché Ben, touché…) But, specifically, they were asked what they would want people to know about autism if the whole world was listening. At that moment, you could hear a pin drop, and every single one of us, was intently listening and waiting for their responses.

The responses, some in the form of verbal communication, some with communication devices and some as interpreted by parents, were profound.  

  • Don’t talk about me when I am right here, I am listening to everything you say about me. I am not stupid.
  • Don’t set limitations on what our potential is.  
  • Include me in conversations.
  • Parents, don’t talk down about me.
  • Autism is not a disease, and we don’t need to be fixed.
  • It may seem like I don’t have emotions, but the truth is I think sometimes I feel things much more than the average person. I do love you and care, I just don’t know how to express it.

And there we were- nearly 100 of us in the room- teachers, doctors, therapists, nurses – all ‘experts’ in our respective fields. However, in that hour, in the presence of these individuals, through their candid vulnerability and heartfelt words and wisdom, I realized we were the students, thirsty for their knowledge, and without knowing or trying, it was actually they who were our greatest teachers.

That, I realized, is what has made 2014 so rich. At the Burnett Center, our leadership, myself, our staff, instructors and volunteers, each of us wake up each day with an intention to provide lifelong learning to these adults. We make plans for skill-building, thoughtfully shape curriculum to deliver the best instruction, and track social and behavioral progress, and while it’s been incredible to witness so much growth, the celebration lies in that these adults are actually the ones teaching us. Every single day, we are touched by their spirit, amazed by their potential and honored to be learning lessons of a lifetime- from the greatest teachers any of us will ever know- about endless opportunity; surpassing expectations; defying ‘norms’; proving the ability for constant growth; seeing no limits for themselves, or their friends; finding joy in the simple things; celebrating each accomplishment as a great victory. 

In Rosie’s Ted Talk, she wraps up by saying, “Instead of judging people for their actions, that aren’t deemed normal, why can’t we celebrate uniqueness and cheers every time someone unleashes their imagination?”

Indeed, we should cheers, to a New Year, with new hopes, potentials and opportunities for imagination, and to a community that will ‘raise their glasses’ to such infinite greatness.

And as we enter this New Year, with a fresh quarter of classes welcoming new adults and learning opportunities for us all, I raise my glass and cheers, to surpassing expectations, defying ‘normal’, making dents and celebrating imagination. And a special cheers to one bright soul who is my daily reminder to live with spirit, tenacity, strength and gratitude. You too, have been my teacher.

Cheers to all the goodness to come…