Excerpt from “Finding Your Child’s Way on the Autism Spectrum”
Dr. Laura Hendrickson
I’ve loved the old children’s movie Dumbo for many years.
Dumbo is a little elephant with enormous ears. In fact, his ears are so big that he trips over them all the time, producing all kinds of problems. Dumbo is mocked about his ears and snubbed when his clumsiness embarrasses the other elephants. But one day Dumbo discovers that his ears are large enough to act as wings. Upon realizing that Dumbo can fly, his only friend cries, “The very things that held you down are going to carry you up!” As the movie ends, Dumbo is rich, famous, and admired by all, performing in the circus as “the world’s only flying elephant.”
I remember watching the movie when Eric was a newborn. Sympathetic tears rolled down my cheeks as the other elephants ridiculed Dumbo. Couldn’t they see that he was beautiful? His big ears were just different, not ugly! I would sing the lullaby that his mother sang in the movie to my own adorable baby, little knowing that this movie would become more than just a story to me in a few short years.
Three years later, Eric, by now diagnosed with autism, became fascinated with Disneyland’s Dumbo the Flying Elephant Ride. Every time we went to Disneyland we had to ride it over and over. In those days the ride had a motto painted on its top, “Believe – and Soar.” As we rode again and again I’d pray, “Lord, I believe that You can do anything. Please make Eric soar.”
I bought Eric an enormous stuffed Dumbo for his bed. He never cuddled it, but sometimes I did, and prayed again that Eric would one day soar, like Dumbo. I also prayed that one day he’d smile, he’d speak, he’d cuddle stuffed animals, and most important, that he’d tell me that he loved me. And do you know what? One day he did all of these things. In fact, the first unprompted sentence Eric ever spoke, at age four, was “I love you, Mommy.” God has been so good to me!
One day Eric soared, too. I sobbed with joy as I listened to him give the valedictorian address at his high school graduation. His top-ranked university recently announced that his GPA placed him in the top 5 percent of students in his college. It seems the sky is the limit for the young man who was once a mute, unsmiling little boy with vacant green eyes.
I’ve thought about Dumbo many times since the summer when we rode the Dumbo ride over and over again. In the following years, as Eric struggled to learn to ride a bicycle, understand the concept of team sports, or make friends, he was often ridiculed, and I remembered Dumbo tripping over those ears. I sometimes cried myself to sleep, singing the little lullaby to myself.
Baby mine, dry your eyes.
Rest your head close to my heart,
Never to part, baby of mine.
Little one, when you play,
Don’t you mind what they say.
Let those eyes sparkle and shine,
Never a tear, baby of mine.
From your head to your toes,
You’re so sweet, goodness knows.
You are so precious to me,
Cute as can be, baby of mine.
One day I realized that the reason Dumbo tripped over his ears was because he wasn’t born to be a walking elephant at all. Dumbo was born to fly. As I understood this, Dumbo’s story became a parable for Eric’s life. I began to pray that his challenge might one day turn out to be the source of a unique ability, just as Dumbo’s had.
Like Dumbo, Eric often did not meet the expectations of other adults or his teachers. He was teased and sometimes rejected by his peers because of his differences. His doctors talked about his “neurological deficits” as if the essential truth about Eric was that he was lacking necessary qualities, which had to be made up somehow if he was going to have a meaningful life. But the essence of what made Dumbo himself didn’t lie in what he was unable to do. Dumbo would never have flown if his ears hadn’t been long enough for him to trip over in the first place. The tripping was a necessary stage in his development into the elephant he was born to be. He was never defective or inferior. He was just embarked upon a different path, born for a different kind of life.
I believe that this is true for all of our spectrum children . . . each one is unique, and the contribution that each makes to our world will be, like Dumbo’s, because of their uniqueness, not in spite of it.