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Welcome To Holland

Columnist Lynn Nankervis discusses a funny moment in the world of autism

We’re all familiar with the routine of life and, for most of us, weekends are made for playing catch up - getting all those things we don’t have time for during the week accomplished and hoping we still have some leftover minutes to relax.

I had quite a bit of errand running to do this past weekend and my 15-year-old son with autism, Matthew, accompanied me.

Matthew is a homebody and doesn’t like to venture out too often so I enjoyed the time with him, even if it was spent filling the car up with gas, dropping a card table off at a friend’s house, and making a quick stop at the grocery store for a few items.

Like most kids with autism, Matthew can handle only so much social interaction before he needs a break so I was moving at a brisk pace until, while cruising through the Publix dairy aisle for milk, I ran into a friend who has recently gone back to school to work on her PhD.

We spent a several minutes talking and catching up until it became obvious that Matthew was becoming increasingly uncomfortable, so I said goodbye to my friend and Matthew and I quickly found the last items on our list, paid for the groceries and made our way through the parking lot to the car.

Settled in for the drive home, Matthew suddenly said, “Mom, that lady was speaking English.”

“What lady?”

“The lady who was spelling stuff out for you.”

As I replayed the trip through the grocery store in my head, Matthew looked at me curiously, as if I should obviously know exactly what was on his mind. I wracked my brain and suddenly it hit me. 

The PhD.

I explained that PhD is an acronym for doctor of philosophy and that my friend has returned to school to further her education in order to advance her career. I assumed the conversation was over when Matthew nodded his
head in understanding.

A minute later he piped up again, “But she was speaking English.”

“Yes, Matthew, of course she was. I don’t understand what you mean.”

Very matter of fact Matthew announced that I told my friend she was speaking Greek.  

Once again I searched my mind and, within a minute or two, I remembered that while describing in detail a science course she is taking, I laughed and said to my friend, “Oh goodness, that’s all Greek to me.”

Autism has provided many funny moments in our lives, quite a few of them courtesy of such idioms as “Hold your horses” or “piece of cake” or the latest, “It’s all Greek to me.”

Sometimes when I’m caught up in a moment, I will forget that Matthew, like all people with autism, is a concrete thinker and views the world literally. When I said, “That’s Greek to me,” Matthew literally thought I was saying my friend was speaking Greek.

As he has grown, Matthew has begun to recognize many of the American idioms but every now and then a new one will pop up and give us all a
giggle. It’s all part of living in the awesome world of autism.

Many readers might be familiar with Emily Perl Kingsley’s beautifully written poem, “Welcome To Holland,” copied below. I feel more than blessed to reside in the beautiful countryside of the Netherlands, where my family has become quite familiar with the language, the culture and the many opportunities. So while, a few years ago, I may have been planning a visit to Italy, I know now how very fortunate I am to have landed, and stayed, in Holland.

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 Welcome To Holland, By Emily Perl Kingsley

I am often asked to describe the experience of raising a child with a disability - to try to help people who have not shared that unique experience to understand it, to imagine how it would feel. 

It's like this...

When you're going to have a baby, it's like planning a fabulous vacation trip to Italy. You buy a bunch of guide books and make your wonderful plans.

The Coliseum. 

The Michelangelo David. 

The gondolas in Venice. 

You may learn some handy phrases in Italian. It's all very exciting.

After months of eager anticipation, the day finally arrives. You pack your bags and off you go. Several hours later, the plane lands. The stewardess comes in and says, "Welcome to Holland."

"Holland?!?" you say.

"What do you mean Holland?? I signed up for Italy! I'm supposed to be in Italy. All my life I've dreamed of going to Italy."

But there's been a change in the flight plan. They've landed in Holland and there you must stay.

The important thing is that they haven't taken you to a horrible, disgusting, filthy place, full of pestilence, famine and disease. It's just a different place.

So you must go out and buy new guide books. And you must learn a whole new language. And you will meet a whole new group of people you would never have met.

It’s just a different place. It's slower-paced than Italy, less flashy than Italy. But after you've been there for a while and you catch your breath, you look around...and you begin to notice that Holland has windmills...and Holland has tulips. Holland even has Rembrandts.

But everyone you know is busy coming and going from Italy...and they're all bragging about what a wonderful time they had there. 

And for the rest of your life, you will say "Yes, that's where I was supposed to go. That's what I had planned."

And the pain of that will never, ever, ever, ever  go away...because the loss of that dream is a very very significant loss.

But...if you spend your life mourning the fact that you didn't get to Italy, you may never be free to enjoy the very special, the very lovely things...about Holland.

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