Just Lower the Branches: A Response to Autism

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When I was in middle school in a small town in Massachusetts, there was one boy in our class, Thayer, who used a wheel chair sometimes to get around. Thayer had polio as a child which left him with a physical disability. Those were the days before polio was been nearly eradicated polio from the planet by the polio vaccine.

Thayer was just one of the guys in our class. We really didn’t think much about him cruising around the school building in his chair or outside on the paved part of the playground. We all knew why he needed the wheelchair, the wheel chair and crutches were his legs.

In the sixth grade, we took a field trip to an orchard to learn how to make apple cider. When we piled out of the bus, we were told to wander the orchard for a few minutes, find one prized apple on a tree, and pick it to add to our lunches. Thayer rolled into the orchard to seek out his own prized apple.

Knowing he couldn’t reach the apples sitting in his chair, some of the kids suggested that he find one on the ground instead. But Thayer didn’t want to settle for an apple which had become food for worms and bugs and deer. No, he wanted a fresh apple from the tree, one that had grown from a blossom to a bud to a juicy apple, waiting to be picked. Soon Thayer had his eye on one particular apple above him. It was shiny red and bulged with delicious apple flesh as it hung there dangling just out of his reach.

A couple girls saw Thayer’s dilemma and pointed out to him a few other apples hanging closer. “Get this one, Thayer. It’s a beauty!” But Thayer would not be swayed from his chosen apple.

Then one of the girls reached up for Thayer’s apple and said, “I’ll pick it for you!”

“No!” he shouted. “I want to pick it myself!”

The helpful girl stopped just in time, looking confused. “I was only trying to help,” she retorted.

A few seconds of silence passed. It was clear that Thayer was not going to be denied the opportunity to pick his own apple. Suddenly the largest boy in our class climbed up the tree and crawled out on the branch to which Thayer’s apple was attached. He was trying to lower the branch with his weight so that Thayer could reach it. When it appeared that Raymond wasn’t quite heavy enough to bring the branch low enough, Gerry and I scrambled up the tree to join him. This commotion caught the attention of a few other kids and soon the tree was full of “climbing monkeys.” Thayer rolled his chair right under the apple and on the third try wrapped his fingers around it. With a quiet snap he had his prize in hand. He had picked his own apple, just like everyone else. All we had to do was lower the branch. It gave us all a good feeling inside. Soon we were all off to cider-making class.

In my work and in life I encounter many people who have disabilities. I also encounter the disability of our culture which stereotypes people like Thayer as objects of pity or lesser in ability. Thayer isn’t a disabled person. He is a person who, although unable to accomplish certain tasks as others might, finds a detour around the inability.

In recent years, I’ve come to know a middle-aged man named Tony who also lives with a disability. In Tony’s case, it’s autism. Tony’s disability renders him unable to effectively represent himself as a creative, hardworking, and skillful person. Yet, Tony has some extraordinary abilities to repair and tune pianos. His autism presents an obstacle to moving forward in his vocation and becoming financially self-sufficient.

Although Tony graduated from an excellent school for training to repair and tune pianos, although he is a registered piano technician, although he has demonstrated scores of times that he can successfully repair and tune a piano, and although Tony has his own piano tuning business, Tuning by Tony, he is unable to socially present himself in a manner that creates a positive first impression like most people with autism. He appears extremely shy and socially awkward until his customers get to know him and his abilities. The “apple of his eye” is to employ his God-given abilities with competence and to his customer’s satisfaction. But he needs the branch lowered to within reach by people who are willing to give Tony introductions to potential customers (individual piano owners, churches, and schools) who are then willing to consider him a viable option for their choice of a piano technician.

Tony lacks access to these potential customers because, having autism, he is unable to effectively represent his competence to them. Tony is very able to provide them competent service. He only lacks the social aptitude (a symptom of autism) to present himself in a manner that instills confidence in potential customers. The lowering-of-the-branch help that Tony needs revolves around the task of informing potential customers that Tony is a potential choice in hiring a piano technician. More specifically, Tony needs his caring community to empathically build a bridge for him to people who need his services.

Tony’s situation is not isolated. Many people with or without disabilities are frustrated by the “high branches” of social perceptions and cultural expectations placed upon them. Potential employers are unwilling to consider the actual abilities to perform the jobs they are seeking. Consider how women are paid less than their male peers, how people of color are prejudged, or how people with certain religious traditions are considered suspect. Where unchallenged perceptions define individuals, injustice can hold people down in their poverty or stigma. I think Tony’s autism is a lesser disability than the negative social perceptions of our culture.

Tony needs fair access to potential customers according to his proven competence, not according to his autism. He wants to work the work God has worked into him. I'm not arguing that potential customers or employers should lower their standards for the work that needs to get done. People who get passed over for work can reach the “apple” of their souls if other people will “lower the branches” to put opportunities within reach in order to, as Tony puts it, “make people happy about their pianos.” 

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