The first babysitter I hired on a regular basis was a special ed major at the local university. One day she handed me this essay called "Welcome to Holland" by Emily Perl Kingsley. I can't help but appreciate a piece written by the lady responsible for making sure that special needs children were represented on Sesame Street.
An article in Wikipedia sums the essay up best by zeroing in on the metaphor that the Kingsley is conveying. According to the entry, "The metaphor is that the trip to Italy is a typical birth and child-raising experience, and that the trip to Holland is the experiencing of having and raising a special-needs child."
I first received "Welcome to Holland" three years ago. I know the essay is still making the rounds in certain college courses because when I participated on a panel last year with four or five other autism parents, the professor of the developmental psychology class read the essay before he introduced us. At least two of the parents who hadn't seen the essay lost a tear or two. For some reason, I didn't cry either of the two times, but I understand why someone else would. It's a heart-touching essay, written with love and care.
I love the essay, but not everyone does. I found a critical essay called "Have a Nice Trip" in Brain, Child: the [online] magazine for thinking moms. It was written by Jill Cornfield, a mother of a child who was born premature and who has Pervasive Developmental Disorder. She received the article (given to all parents of preemies in the hospital where her son was) when her son spent months in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.
Cornfield prefers the metaphor of a cat to the metaphor of a visit to Holland. I don't think there is anything wrong with her preference of metaphor. She's not the only one who likens a child with autism to a cat. Kathy Hoopmann's cute children's book all cats have asperger syndrome (the words in the title of the book are not capitalized) comes to mind. It's the bitterness that seems to be emanating from "Have a Nice Trip" that concerns me. Cornfield closes her article by writing:
"Perhaps my biggest problem with Kingsley's metaphor is that it simply doesn't hold water. A traveler can always catch the next flight out, but no matter which parental country you find yourself in--whether typically developing or autistic or wheelchair-bound--you can't fly out again. "
Well, no we can't fly out of Holland (i.e. escape this journey with a special needs child). But do we want to? Should we want to? Why shouldn't we look around and see the beauty of Holland? To tell the truth, I personally have grown more emotionally and intellectually in Holland than I would have in Italy. Why stay as angry and bitter as this author seems to be? What Cornfield doesn't seem to understand is that this essay is more about acceptance and appreciating what you have than metaphor.
Acceptance does not mean that we should not do what we can to move our children with autism forward. We should expect and celebrate improvement. However, In my opinion, it is necessary to appreciate both the challenges and blessings that raising a child with autism brings.
There aren't many parents who expected their child to have autism (or land in Holland). For many, myself included, landing in Holland instead of Italy came as a complete shock. I, like others, had to face grief and learn to let go of the expectations of raising a child that doesn't have special needs. Unlike, others, I had to face this overwhelming emotion for a second round when I found out about my son's severe kidney ailments about a month after he turned eight years old (a year and a half ago).
It's common for parents of special needs children to go through cycles of grief. Denial and anger come before acceptance does. Sometimes it takes years to go through the cycle. Cornfield's essay was published two to three years ago, so perhaps she's no longer quite as angry or bitter as she seems to be in the essay.
Do not get me wrong, it's OK if one does not like "Welcome to Holland." It's a matter of personal preference. What's not OK is to stay angry. It's just not good for one's mental health.
I can only hope Cornfield is appreciating her "cat" and all he has to offer. My own son exasperates me at times--especially when he makes fellow moviegoers move to other seats with his brief period of feet stomping and seat kicking (as he did for the first time today.) However, I have to say that it's not so bad being in this place with my own cute, cat-like lad (the kid who actually meows when overstimulated). Because of my son's kidney conditions (renal reflux, single scarred kidney) I've had to face a reality that I may actually have to leave Holland some day. I don't want to go. It's a place I've learned to love. Holland, here I am.
P.S. It is comforting to know that I'm not alone in Holland. There are a lot of people with me in this country that are pretty great. Smiles--JML.