“What is particularly insidious here is that not only is the victim a child, but, on top of that, it is a special needs child.”
Years ago—when I was still in high school in my home country of Iran—we had a bizarre fellow in our neighborhood. He did not have much in the way of family support and had to work nearly all the time—and always in low paying jobs that did not require much in the way of skill. He could not communicate very well, but he was calm and friendly.
His name was Shahram, and when we played soccer in the street, he would watch us and would help us by bringing the ball back whenever it was accidentally kicked far down the street. He couldn’t play with us because following the rules of the game proved too difficult for him, but he was happy to help us and sit with us afterwards when the game was done. And, as I said, he was able to work. In our neighborhood, there were a few shops, and Shahram would work whenever they had a job for him: unloading the milk early in the morning for the grocery store, carrying away used boxes from the bakery, and even working a couple of hours per week at the barbershop sweeping hair from the floor.
But then his life took something of a dark turn: someone taught him what a blow job was, and Shahram was someone open to making money any chance he got. I learned about this one day when sitting and chatting with our neighborhood friends: “Shahram gives blow jobs now,” they said. I could not fathom how he had come to be doing this, and the next time he came to our game, I tried to have a conversation with him about it. But communicating verbally—about any subject that is a tad complicated or included gray area—was difficult for him, and it was clear that he was having a hard time understanding the issues I was trying to convey to him.
Many years later, I learned what Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) was, and then my own two sons would, in time, be diagnosed with ASD too. And, then, the things with Shahram began to make more sense. Throughout these past nearly twenty years of being a father to two children with autism, I have come to understand nearly all of the aspects of this often strange condition. Although many ask me how similar it is to say Dustin Hoffman’s character in the movie Rain Man, no film or book can fully convey what it is like on a daily basis to live with autism.
I am also often asked—including by parents whose children have recently been diagnosed—what the biggest challenges are for those on the autism spectrum. The answer is very different depending on whether the person with autism is a child or an adult. For instance, I often discuss what my children have been unable to do on their own. My younger son, for instance, did not know how to chew, and we had to put anything he would eat in a blender so he could swallow it. Both of my sons were scared to death of toothbrushes and scissors, and it was impossible to take them either to a dentist or a barber.
Although the steps my children are taking are small, they are progressing more and more in their day-to-day life. Still, however, the most significant challenges that they face each day involve socializing with others, particularly strangers—the sort of workplace norms that most adults take for granted. For many people with autism, they require explicit instructions to follow. This means, fortunately, that they are able to work in settings where the jobs they are required to do have clear steps and protocols. But life skills are more than that: one has to learn to deal with lies and schemes—and above all else—to avoid situations where people may try to take advantage of you. For people with autism, detecting this last bit is extremely difficult, if not often impossible. Actually, I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that it will be impossible to teach my children how to avoid this. Even myself—as a neurotypical—I, too, can sometimes fall for schemes and deception, whether in the workplace or outside. So imagine how easy it would be for someone to take advantage of someone with autism, something Shahram experienced without even ever knowing it so many years ago.
There’s another point that comes up often when parents with newly diagnosed children ask me for advice. Many of them believe this myth that most people on the autism spectrum are extremely talented, even to the genius level, in some aspect of life. The answer to this is an unequivocal, “No.” Their brains may be wired differently; they certainly connect with the world differently, but the chances of a child with autism being a genius are the same likelihood as that of anyone else: incredibly low.
My main focus right now with my older son, who is on the higher functioning side of the autism spectrum, is to prepare him to have as productive an adulthood as is possible. But, I could very well take that same effort and make an anti-gun activist out of him, a climate activist, or, for that matter, a pro-gun activist out of him.
Which brings me to the case of Greta Thunberg. As a parent of a child with autism myself, one thing is painfully clear to me: to use a child with autism as a vehicle to spread a political message is child abuse, full stop. If Sweden had a reliable child support service like those that exist in other countries, her parents might have, by now, faced the consequences they should for their actions. Instead of leveraging their special needs children for political purposes, parents of children with disabilities should be preparing them for what will be a tough life ahead for them.
My main focus right now with my older son, who is on the higher functioning side of the autism spectrum, is to prepare him to have as productive an adulthood as is possible. But, I could very well take that same effort and make an anti-gun activist out of him, a climate activist, or, for that matter, a pro-gun activist out of him. Any cause really. And he is high functioning enough that he would be able to articulate any of these messages, even if he does not fully understand the underlying issues. Instead, I do what any responsible special needs parent does: I choose to teach him commitment and responsibility, how to detect lies (as best as is possible), to take a job (whatever it might be), and to try to be a helpful member of society on a daily basis.
The celebrity of Greta Thunberg has followed the same course of ascendancy as that of any other celebrity. Those in the media and those around her tell her what to do and say so they can extract as much political messaging and earning capacity out of her as possible. What is particularly insidious here is that not only is the victim a child, but, on top of that, it is a special needs child. Worse yet, there may become other cases like Greta’s. The next could be a different special needs teenager trained to recite anti-immigrant, anti-democratic, anti-whatever, or pro-whatever messages, as a spokesperson for those with the real political agendas.
The healthy life of someone with special needs often looks different from those without disabilities. It may not be glamorous on the outside, but it can still be very fulfilling for the person living it. Even a seemingly simple job can give someone with a disability enormous satisfaction. Shahram, for instance, had a good life: working odd jobs and sitting watching us play soccer and—when the time would come—helping us by retrieving the ball as it rolled away down the street. But someone chose to teach him something that damaged his life forever. If only this had stopped there, decades ago in Tehran, but instead it continues, year after year, until we finally decide that we must not let this child abuse of those with special needs turn to normalcy.
Kambiz Tavana is an Iranian-American journalist and writer.