I never thought about how much I had in common with penguins until I read a post by MothersVox on Autism's Edges and enrolled Bud in a gymnastics class that is designed for children with diagnosed disabilities.
We live in a fairly rural area where there are not many opportunities like the one presented by this gymnastics class, so despite the fact that the class is some distance away I did not hesitate to register Bud for it. When we arrived at the class I gave the teacher our address.
"But that's 45 minutes each way," she said, incredulously. "And the class is only 45 minutes long!"
"Yes," I said, considering for the first time that perhaps this had been a foolish decision. "But I really think he's going to like it."
"Wow," she said. "I'm impressed."
And Bud did enjoy it; in fact, he loved it. There are only three other boys in the class and though we didn't play "Name That Diagnosis," it was pretty clear that they were all on the spectrum. Throughout the class, though, the teacher made at least four more references to the fact that I had traveled so far to attend, calling it to the attention of others, and suggesting that perhaps I should sign up for the class right before it as well, to at least make the trip "worthwhile."
I started chatting with the teacher about the classes - there are three 45-minute classes being held each week for eight weeks, all of them for children with disabilities. I asked her if this was the first time they'd run a class like this, and she explained that she had approached the gymnastics center with a proposal for them. Her son is one of the boys in the class, and she was tired of enrolling him in activities only to have to withdraw after the first session because he couldn't manage it. She wanted to create a safe space for him, where he could be himself and where she didn't have to worry what other parents were thinking. So she created, and is teaching, these three classes so that he will have three opportunities each week to interact with peers outside of school.
And she thought *I* was going above and beyond by driving 45 minutes to be there.
I thought about it all the way home (and since I had a 45-minute drive, there was plenty of time to think) and was reminded of MothersVox's post, in which she draws the parallel between parents of children on the autism spectrum and the stars of March of the Penguins who withstand cruel conditions and overcome tremendous odds simply to give life to their young.
As I drove I began thinking about the fiercely determined yet gently-dispositioned penguins I'd seen in the movie just a few weeks earlier, and I began to imagine the conversations they had as they huddled together for warmth, turning their backs to the blinding snow.
"I just can't believe you walked the whole 70 miles to be here."
"Oh, that? That's nothing. What about you and that incident with the seal - that must have been terrifying!"
Why does that sound so familiar? Why are so many of us so quick to applaud the insight, determination, and plain old hard work of other parents, but just as quick to downplay our own? The penguins spend eight months every year enduring unthinkably harsh conditions; do they spend any time during the other four months just being proud of what they've accomplished?
Unlike the penguins, we don't spend eight months on and four months off. Autism is an all day, every day, every week, every month, every year, pervasive and all-consuming condition. Most of us will never arrive at the day when we can say we "beat it." For most of us, there will always be more to learn, more to try, more to consider, more to do, do, do. Despite that - because of that - we have to find the opportunities to celebrate our moments of determination and triumph:
the times we work for hours to fill 15 minutes,
the times we hurl ourselves between our children and the cruel comments from people who should know better,
the times we challenge our thinking and stretch ourselves to truly meet our children's needs,
and, yes, even the times we drive 90 minutes so that our children can participate in 45 minutes of gymnastics.