The True Face of Victory (#233)

"Being the best that you can be" is one way to translate the ancient Greek word arete, whose basic meaning is "excellence" or "virtue." Aretê refers not only to one’s moral character but to the development of kalokagathia, the notion of "being beautiful and good." To have both a beautiful body and a beautiful mind was the ideal of a classical Greek education, which included study in rhetoric, mathematics, music, and gymnastics.
Thus, winners at the athletic festivals–such as the ancient Olympics–won not only olive leaf wreaths and meals at public expense, but undying timê ("honor") and kleos ("fame"). To be victorious at the Olympic or other ancient games was to be a mortal who had, for that one shining moment of glory, attained something godlike.

Now being the 21st century, Olympic victory means Big Fat Endorsement Deals from Corporate America–Campbell’s Soup, Wheaties, Coke (all on the GFCF Diet Off-Limits List ). In the same moment that the media was reporting that Michelle Kwan was withdrawing from the 2006 Olympics due to an injury, the big topic was " what will happen to her endorsement deals with Coke and VISA?."

Aside from our speech therapist being a former figure skater who has offered to teach Charlie to ice-skate, our household has barely noticed the Winter Olympics. Charlie has been increasingly interested in watching ESPN–football, baseball, basketball–with Jim but, though I do know what curling is after our two years in St. Paul, we are not winter sports people. Nonetheless I did feel a deep twinge to hear about Kwan’s withdrawal from the Olympics, perhaps from a surge of Asian-American solidarity. (Kwan speaks with the same accent as my relatives……)

And perhaps it was from reading the responses of marketers to her tearful withdrawal. February 14th’s New Yorks Times quoted Bob Dorfman–"executive vice president and creative director for Pickett Advertising in San Francisco and the author of The Sports Marketers’ Scouting Report, a quarterly analysis of athletes’ endorsement potential"–as saying that "’… the problem now is that instead of people looking at her as a gold medal winner, they’re looking at her with a little, ‘oh, I’m so sorry for her’….You want to feel good when you look at her, but instead you’re feeling bad. So I can see some marketers turning away from her because of that.’"

You want to feel good when you look at [such a cute kid as Charlie], but instead you’re feeling bad [because you hear his garbled "I wahn b’ack car!" and see how he is some 6 inches shorter than the woman he called "Mommy."]

I admire Kwan’s steely grace on the ice and in front of the microphones but what are a celebrity’s tears broadcast across the globe to those Charlie burst into as we were on a short walk this afternoon? I know why Kwan is crying. I don’t know why Charlie was.

I do know that Charlie has been doing fabulous in the heats and preliminary trials that are all part of the relentless obstable course–the marathon–of Autismland. And the competition is the hardest you could ever imagine: In the one corner, it is the world that sees Charlie as–that says he is–not even disabled but not able, MR, not really worth it.

And in the other corner is Charlie himself, with his particular neurobiological make-up and unusual neurological wiring. How often has Charlie been his own worse enemy? How often has Charlie’s face and "great job yeah!" as he tries to point to the right answer after not getting it for several trials–indicated his desire not only to get the right answer, but to make his teacher or therapist or parent happy?

Plenty of theory of mind–of mindfulness–in this boy, just not enough or perhaps not yet having the kind of language to tell us.

I have lost count of the races, the competitions, contests, and games of childhood and of life that Charlie seems already to have finished in the bottom in, or already to have lost, or been outright disqualified from. In a society that equates "success" and "winning" with the size of a paycheck, Charlie would seem relegated to the lowest rung of losers.

Life in Autismland teaches you to just ignore the hype. It’s not that I have no time for it, but that teaching Charlie has taught me to focus on the essentials, the smallest kernels of life and learning, and to love this strange new world. This true beauty and goodness—hê alêthês kalokagathia.

I visited Charlie’s school today and observed him working away at his desk (he is up to earning three tokens) and–to fulfill the requirements of the APA–listening to a typical child a few years older than him asking him to identify objects, do a puzzle, follow directions, sort objects. He is doing good in his counting (by 10s), language, speech, writing–indeed, in all of his programs, except for the Edmark pre-reading program. (I am not surprised; Charlie is in his third year of struggling through learning to read, and I am mighty pleased that he has become proficient at matching words to words and words to pictures, two skills that eluded him a few years ago.) His teacher and I discussed strategies: The first Edmark pre-reading lesson requires Charlie to look at a simple line drawing and "find the same" picture out of a choice of three. One of his teachers had just found out that it helped a great deal to ask Charlie to point to and identify each picture before "finding the same," the very same technique that his home speech therapist has been using.

Teamwork–in Charlie’s case, coordination between school and home—can overcome the knottiest obstables.

My heart was full–of happiness, peace, and just plain full–to see Charlie working so assiduously and with such focus. This quiet focus stayed with him all day to an after-dinner swim, in which I insistently requested that he swim a few laps. Charlie moved his arms and pushed away from the wall when I asked him to. He was a bit out of breath—it was the first time we had been in the pool since he and I have been ill–and wrapped himself head to foot up in his blue blanket before falling asleep.
Jim and I have been looking into Charlie participating in the Special Olympics and are cheered on by other parents’ accounts of their kids competing. A few years ago Charlie was a Philly on a Challenger League baseball team; the dad who was the coach also had a child on a "regular" Little League team and assured us that he preferred coaching his son on our team. He sighed to us about how the "regular" teams were all about win, win, win and not just "playing for the fun of it."

Playing, that is, to be the best that each kid could be, regardless of athletic ability. Charlie and his cohort are redefining what that "ability" means and can be. In the Charliad, the main events will be swimming, boogie boarding (preferably at the Jersey shore but the eastern seaboard will be acceptable, and maybe Hawai’i and Australia for the sake of the Wiggles), bike-riding with Dad, and catch.

There’s a bunch more events in the works as Charlie goes through his spring training. The marketing strategy behind the whole enterprise is that Charlie and teammates attain their aretê and be the best that they can be.

And that will be something beautiful and truly good. And worth several talents of gold, silver, bronze and platinum, and a lifelong membership in the Autism Hearts Club.

4 Responses to “The True Face of Victory (#233)”
  1. Eileen says:

    “One of his teachers had just found out that it helped a great deal to ask Charlie to point to and identify each picture before “finding the same,” the very same technique that his home speech therapist has been using.”

    We have found that the same type of technique works well with Andrew. I feel that it is not always that he doesn’t know the right answer, but he is afraid of getting it wrong. Having him identify first gives him the confidence and reassurance that he seems to need. Or maybe he just needs the information fresh in his mind.

    Charlie looks so cute in that baseball picture. Andrew is signed up for Spring soccer on Brian’s team with Dad as the assistant coach.

  2. Kristin says:

    Kristina, I really enjoy reading about Charlie and your family. Especially on those days when I am feeling bitter against the world and our daily struggles. Your writing has such a wonderful way of truly making your “journey” with Charlie a daily reminder of how life’s twists and turns can not only be rewarding, but enable us to get beyond ourselves and focus on what is really important. Thank you.


  3. Ennis says:

    It may be the confidence issue or it may be something else. I know nothing about autism, so this is pure speculation.

    But maybe he doesn’t know to load the pictures into his short term memory before making the comparison. By walking the child through the pictures, you’re making them perform the critical intermediate step, so that he can make the comparison on his own.

    Often, with my friends who have different LDs, I find that the difference in our thought processes has to do with their not knowing a critical stage in a process.

  4. Mothersvox says:

    Oh dear Kristina aka Penelope,

    What a well-woven post you have made. Now don’t unweave it this evening. We shan’t force you into a new marriage.;)

    And beautiful to imagine that we can focus on the contests where we have our strengths highlighted . . . boogie boarding is always on my list ahead of iceskating.

    I am watching the end of the iceskating as I write this and find it so neverwracking when they fall . . . failures, even on the road to the goals . . . feel painful.

    One of the rewards for me on the autism trail is learning that the thing that separates “success” from “failure” is mostly the number of times you’re willing to fall and get back up . . . the more resilient, the more successful.

    The other night when the Chinese pair skating team’s female skater completely crashed–clearly hurt her knee–and got up and skated the rest of her program, I was aching for her. And then she won the silver.

    What Sweet M lacks in speed, she makes up for in tenacity (aka perseveration). That’s the autism power I like to harness for her. Sounds like Sweet C has the same tenacity.

    Happy beauty and goodness, and good night.


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