TED Talk: “To understand autism, don’t look away”

Today’s TED Talk has an important, moving message. As this autism mom says, “There is no need to be an expert nor do anything heroic to include someone. We just need to be there…we simply need to be close. And if we are afraid of something or we don’t understand something, we need to ask.” It’s seven minutes, and well worth it.

Note: the talk is in Spanish with English subtitles.

Outside in

A young autistic boy sits quietly while children in the background gaze at him.

A boy on a bench. What do you see?

Even though it’s inaccurate, I love this photo of Colin.

First the accurate part: it captures my son enjoying a brief moment of quiet in a playground, unaware that some children were staring at him.

Now the inaccurate part: the photo suggests exclusion and isolation. It implies that he might be the subject of teasing—or worse. It fits the narrative of autism we’ve come to accept as true. In this case, though, it simply isn’t.

The real story is that Colin never stops moving; he’s a ball of perpetual, joyful energy, and moments like these are rare. Those kids? They actually tried to play with him a few moments before I took the photo, but he just kept on doing his thing. They seemed curious about this boy who didn’t need them; if anything, they were the ones who may have felt excluded.

I took this photo to capture a peaceful moment, but when I looked at it later, what came through was something more melancholy. Why?

Every photographer knows that context is everything. In any image, what’s excluded is as important as what’s included. Timing, angle, framing – each, in its own way, shapes our perception of a moment’s truth. No photograph tells the whole story, and most barely tell an accurate one.

A young autistic boy laughs with joy while sitting on a swing in a playground.

Same day, same boy, different story.

When I look at Colin, I see challenges. Big ones. But mostly I see joy and enthusiasm for the world—his world. I see a boy who loves life with a purity and exuberance I myself have never experienced, not even as a child. I have a choice, then: I can choose to frame his story so that it makes me sad, or so that it makes me happy.

On my better days, I choose the latter.

Pursue a life beyond what’s ‘normal’

Colin walking with geese

The TED Talk that changed how I saw my son

“Today I have just one request. Please don’t tell me I’m normal.” These are the first words of Faith Jegede Cole’s TED Talk, and they changed me forever.

It was December 2012, and I was struggling to come to terms with my son’s recent autism diagnosis. I came across a link to Faith’s brisk talk — I wasn’t yet part of the TED team — and I decided to see what she had to say. When I was done, I scrubbed to the beginning to watch it over again. Then I sent the link to my wife.

When your child is diagnosed with autism, you’re inundated with reports and evaluations outlining the struggles your child is going to face, how difficult their life will be and all the work you have ahead of you. You immerse yourself in a pool of deficits wondering if you’ll ever climb out again, or whether you’ll learn to swim.

But here was someone who wasn’t framing the conversation in terms of deficits. Instead, Faith was talking about her incredible brothers and how their autism made them unique and special. Here was someone saying it’s not just OK to be different, it’s better. Here was someone telling me to look at my son in a different light, to notice all his gifts and potential.

Since then, I’ve come to think of Faith’s talk as my introduction to the neurodiversity movement, which celebrates diverse minds and ways of being — and understands, as Faith says, “Everyone’s got a gift inside of us, and in all honesty, the pursuit of normality is the ultimate sacrifice of potential.”

The talk