Towards a World Where Every Child Belongs

A few weeks ago, a mom brought her tween son in to the Center without an appointment, to ask about resources. I knew, since I know all my families, that she wasn’t the mom of any of our kids in the ABA clinic, and we weren’t seeing new patients at that day or time, that she wasn’t someone we knew. I caught enough of her facial expression to gently interrupt and offer to help in any way I could. They came back to my office for a chat. Her son told me about his experience being bullied by kids in his school. I spent some time getting to know them, what’s he’s good at, and what he likes. I told him briefly that I had been bullied at his age, too – I don’t talk about it a lot, but when I was in sixth grade, there were these boys who used to gang up on me and hit me. I was too ashamed to complain. My mom ultimately saw bruises, and then she went on the warpath, much as this mom was doing now. If you know me, you know I have an ugly mamma bear side, that doesn’t come out often, but it comes out when someone bullies or threatens our kids, so maybe this is where it came from. So, I supported mom in her warpath – you fight, sister, tooth and nail. I gave them some resources – my friend Anthony Ianni’s Relentless Tour to stop bullying, a toolkit from a national anti-bullying center, and also some resources for places to go to be social with people who won’t bully you or tease you and adults watching over who wouldn’t stand for that – our friends at the local YMCA, I told him about cool things going on like Autcraft. And I wanted him to know that there are people who think autistic kids are cool. We cried a little bit and he gave me a big hug, and to be honest, I haven’t seen him since then, and I don’t know how the story turns out. It seemed like an imposition on my time – there are lots of demands on my time – but it turned out to be a really healing conversation for me, too*. And it’s a good introduction to this topic.

Yeah right, you're going to bully this guy. But back then, when he wasn't 6' 9

Yeah right, you’re going to bully this guy. But back then, when he wasn’t 6′ 9″ and he didn’t know how to stand up for himself, you did.

Teri and I watched this movie last night, After the Dark (it’s on Netflix). It’s about this senior philosophy class, and their last gedanken is that they are in a remote place, and atomic bombs are about to go off, and they have a bunker that can only save ten of them, and they have to decide whom. We really liked it – I gave it five stars on Netflix.

It fit really delightfully with this recent business of using personality inventories for leadership at work (in our management development series, we did a profile called the DiSC – see more in a prior blog post of mine). Elyse kind of went crazy on this, and may possibly have taken it multiple times to get the results she wanted. We had a couple of our newer leaders who hadn’t done the profile do it, and on a profile wheel, she mapped out all of my leadership team, so that we could see how our styles as twelve different people were similar or complementary. It turned out that many of our people were clustered together, and it taught me some important things about their desire for harmony and dislike for open competition (although, apparently not in the context of really long, admittedly slightly dorky board games, but that’s another story that’s apparently happening next month). We talked a little bit also about how we cluster leading to a gap space in our wheel – it turns out that we lack someone who is comfortable as a conductor, and this is true. I bring to the table at least some ability to inspire and motivate, and to give people a really amazing vision, that enables them to achieve explosive growth. Elyse brings to the table uncanny acumen and a brilliantly scientific mind that pushes us to be technically excellent. And a big group of our leaders bring steadiness and harmony – they are critical, because the pace of what we’re trying to accomplish can burn people out without steadiness and harmony. But, when there are things that would go more smoothly if someone just implemented a concrete process and held everyone to it, like schedules and managing our productivity and stuff like that, we honestly kind of struggle. This is a concrete way in which more diversity would help us, even if we also generate strength from what we have in common. Rather than being in conflict, the dynamic balance of the two is what makes us strong**.

One of the barriers in getting to this kind of realization, often, is reticence to accept the idea that people, in their dimensionality, bring both strength and struggle to the table. There are these questions, right, when you interview, and someone asks you what your weakness is? And you’re supposed to say something that sounds loosely like a witness, but which you can spin into a strength, to show that you know how to make lemonade out of lemons. But you can’t say you’re a perfectionist, because everybody says they’re a perfectionist. And, of course, you can’t admit to a weakness from which you don’t know how to benefit, because that’s the way the Bizarro world of interviewing works. One of my biggest weaknesses, which is hardly hidden from anyone, is that I take things personally. When our kids suffer, I cry, I feel it along with them. When an injustice is done to them, I rage. I don’t ask for ownership in the things going on in my life – I take it as a birthright. I’m unapologetic about my weakness – I know that it inspires people to both extremes in their feelings for me. I know that it can make things difficult. It really was also how and why I came to do the things I’ve done in the last few years, when I had the biggest chance in my life to take something personally.


Like MLK, I argue that a world where your children and mine can play together, side by side, is a better world for your children and mine, for you and me, … for everybody.

After the Dark also took on this topic of weaknesses in an interesting and critical way. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but the kids in the movie are repeatedly pressed to be analytical, to accept that one person can objectively be classified as better than another, and to make choices based only on that kind of holistic and reductionist value judgment. And this goes wrong – terribly wrong. There is something to be said for seeing in our whole strength, our unified personality, that even when we come together, we are not just a collection of strengths, but also a collection of struggles and challenges and weaknesses, and that doesn’t necessarily just make us weak – it is also what makes us beautiful.

In a talk I recently did, I argued that failures in diversity and inclusion often begin with a failed value equation like this one.

In a talk I recently did, I argued that failures in diversity and inclusion often begin with a failed value equation like this one.

I feel like there’s some of this with the model of diversity and inclusion that we have. “We’re” afraid “them,” rather than thinking about how a broader definition of “us” would make us all better. And we set really exclusive ideas of things, and we set them in kids’ minds really early. Another example – I can’t talk a lot, yet, about this project, but I got to spend Friday morning on it, and it’s soooooo cool – I’m collaborating with some people on a  really cool science education project. I was brought in to help with things like sensory sensitivities the autism community may have, and to help make it accessible to a neurodiverse audience. But as it unfolded, I really saw some cool opportunities to be inclusive in so many more ways. For instance, telling the human story of sciences like physics is a great opportunity to critically address the fact that, if you talk about this stuff to a group of early grade schoolers, all the girls will be engaged and raise their hands, but if you talk to the middle schoolers, many of them will already think this is boy stuff and not really participate or identify. They ought to know stories of women like Shirley Jackson or Lise Meitner. Or even the great Marie Curie herself. If they do, they might get to see that doing science like a girl is pretty great, and that if they’re interested in science, they should be able to feel like they belong in science***. And people who are different in the way their brains are wired – well, there is more than a passing interest in the possibility that Einstein was autistic, and he, Feynman, and some of the others even among the most famous of that era, were nothing if not unique. So I’m taking the opportunity to go beyond making this project neurodiverse in the sense of sensory supports, but I’m pushing the team (and they’re being really receptive) to the idea that inclusion starts with how the story is told, and that stories like the one we’re working on can be a powerful vehicle to help make sure that those girls, those ethnic minorities, those autistic kids, those whoever is different for whatever reason – who might make really good scientists, don’t get faulty messaging from a bad value equation that tells them that they don’t belong.

People need to belong not just in professions, or, say, with the diversity of the leaders in my leadership team, in a place in leadership if they want one, but that they also deserve to belong, socially. Back to the young man’s who paid me an unexpected office visit a few weeks ago, the problem is that kids in his school don’t know how much better their life would be if they had an autistic friend. I live in a bubble, especially where I work, where every single person I interact with loves someone autistic. Where every single neurotypical person is aware – my fifty staff, our parents, our kids’ siblings – of the beauty a child with autism has brought to their life. And it’s more than that – some of our graduates, who are older now and in school – are rock stars. So many other kids have found out how cool it is to be their friends. In one case, a boy who was at our Center was in a class with a bully. But the bully didn’t have any friends. And our boy made friends with the bully, and the bully stopped being a bully. That’s the kind of magic I’m talking about. That’s what makes me dream that someday, we’ll all belong, we’ll all be a part of community as a birthright. I dream of a day when every kid has a friend with autism. And a world where everybody, more generally, has a friend who is “different” from them. And like all the people in my life who know and love someone “different,” I think you’ll all love it, when it comes true. Because it will. That’s what I mean by taking things personally.

* This boy wasn’t my patient, but this does also bring in this whole topic of therapeutic sharing – which is primarily for the patient’s benefit but sometimes also benefits the provider. I shared because there is a powerful cloak of invisibility around abuse, and breaking that cloak down helps the victims of things like bullying. In a recent panel discussion, I also, however, made the argument that some, particularly in psychology, of our ethics models and the way we think about multiple relationships with our patients, actually makes things worse instead of better and is ill thought out. As I say later in this piece, I am unapologetic, often, in positions I take, and in my defense, I’m not just saying this now because I’m a full grown clinician and no one can victimize me – I said the same thing during the ethics segment of my board certification oral examination.

** One example of this, I make fun of calls to have a “Straight Pride,” but just as many white people don’t really understand that they have a race like anybody else, I think maybe a future direction for enhancing our understanding of Pride as a celebration is that, when we celebrate nature’s diversity of sexuality and gender, plain old straight people are part of that diversity as well, and as I said in my Sorry, Not Sorry Conversation, one of the problems with the I’m Sorry movement at Pride is that the straight people who are part of it have failed to understand what Pride is about, and they don’t belong because they don’t understand what they’re celebrating. So, increasingly, I think we need to teach them to have pride, too, much like feminism is not about hating men, and anti-racism is not about hating white people. Not a Straight Pride event, but it’s okay to enjoy your identity as heterosexual.

*** When I applied for engineering and physics graduate programs, one of the physicists who wrote a letter of recommendation for me shared that, when she herself had applied to grad school, she had found out after the fact that one of her professors, who had agreed to write her a letter of recommendation, had put, in it, that she, as a woman, had no place in physics. She found out about the letter, thankfully, because it made someone at the university to which she applied livid, and they leaked it to her. And, obviously, she managed to make it to being a professor of physics at Michigan, so she did not half badly for herself. And in case it seems like this is a problem of yesteryear, we have the current inexcusable behavior of a Nobel laureate.


2 thoughts on “Towards a World Where Every Child Belongs

  1. This is a really great column on leadership! I read it once and then went back to read it again. I’ve been pondering team dynamics myself a lot lately and there were several parts of this post that resonated with me and I loved the way you phrased them. This quote particularly struck me as profound in light of some of my own struggles. “There is something to be said for seeing in our whole strength, our unified personality, that even when we come together, we are not just a collection of strengths, but also a collection of struggles and challenges and weaknesses, and that doesn’t necessarily just make us weak – it is also what makes us beautiful.” I, like you, see beauty in both strengths and weaknesses and it is what makes me love my job caring for those in the middle of crisis. Thanks for the great post. I am sure I will be pondering it for days and revisiting your post again!

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