Lately, I’ve noticed an interesting fashion trend popping up all over the place. Nebulas. They’re silkscreened onto leggings and computer keyboard decals.  They’re set into glass earrings, pendants, and refrigerator magnets.  They’re on sunglass frames and smart phone cases, sheet sets and even a personal liquor flask. I’m not sure when the tipping point came (or even what it was) that made nebulas the theme de la mode.  It seems a bit random. But then again, it seems kind of wonderful, too.

Who knows? Maybe the tough economy made souls weary. Maybe the end of the space shuttle program deflated dreams and imagination. Maybe somebody in a design house somewhere just likes astromony.

Whatever the reason for nebulas-gone-wild, I happen to think it’s fantabulous. Perhaps, in the haste and arrogance of modern amenities, we forget how much more mystery exists than sureity.  And so we instinctively turn our imaginations to the open sky and say lovingly to our children, “Don’t tell me the sky’s the limit when there are footprints on the moon.”

Nebulas. Leggings. Philosophy. Admittedly, not the average fare for a discussion on autism. Or Asperger’s. Or parenting. But then again, who’s ever been enlightened or delighted or moved by “average”? Wonder lies beyond what is. It lingers only in what may be.

Since the dawn of mankind, we’ve been looking up. We designed our “360 degree” circle by observing (about) how many days it took for a constellation to “return” to a particular location.  We’ve linked the cosmos to our mythologies and scheduled life events according to heavenly movements.  And though poets sang and scientists speculated, our ability to perceive the stars clearly was always distorted by our own atmosphere.  As is often the case, our perspectives – both physical and societal – were fixed and limited.

Then, in 1990, everything changed with the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope. 

By design, Hubble “sees” differently. Its orbit, above Earth’s blanket of clouds, offers glimpses of a reality that is both logical and deeply poetic: the birth and death of galaxies, star nurseries, dark energy, and massive gamma-ray explosions of spectacular color and terrible ferocity. Without overstating the case, Hubble has utterly transformed the way humanity undertands the universe and the magnitude of the liquid-rainbow secrets it still holds. 

Hubble is, you might say, like a spectrum mind: capable of pinpoint focus, limitless fact-gathering, and a completely unique perspective. Its deepest value is its difference.

 Now, imagine a (completely hypothetical) glitch in the story.  Let’s say that, back in the 1980’s when engineers began designing Hubble, they had the wrong instructions.  Oh, these would’ve been good instructions, of course.  Well-meant, expertly-preached and thought-out.  But in our story, these fabulous instructions are for the Mars Rover…not the Hubble Space Telescope.

 Our fictional engineers would have, after all, been smart folks. They’d have cared deeply about their creation’s success. In effect, they’d almost be like its parents, shaping and refining with boundless, loving dedication. But no matter how hard they’d try, how much they’d learn or invest — you just can’t launch a good space telescope using directions for a roving robot.

 We are not, of course, building Martian landing crafts in our homes.  And we’re not too likely to launch a multi-reflector orbiting telescope from the backyard, either.  But the families of kids on the spectrum do have an equally — if not more — important charge.    We’re given “standard instructions” from parenting books, experts’ directions, under-informed educators and well-meaning relatives…and raw material that doesn’t match the plans.

 Uncertain what exactly is askew, we have no time for learning curves or training courses. We’re on. Now. Forget booster rockets. Our homes are our launch pads. Forget billion-dollar payloads. This liftoff belongs to our priceless children.

The best plans are always simple, blending form and function. They’re always purposeful, emphasizing process-over-product.  And they’re always respectful of the strengths, challenges, and needs of everyone involved.

I am neither a psychologist nor an interior designer. But I am an Aspie, married to an Aspie, raising three young Asperkids. So this April — this World Autism Awareness Day — I’d like to gift you the instruction manual that will fit Asperkids of ALL AGES….The Asperkid’s Launch Pad: Homes Design that Empowers Everyday Superheroes. 

Like a love letter from my family to yours, this spectacularly-photographed book is a color-rich, room-by-room tour of my own home where, together, we will uncover the hidden power of tucked-away spaces, living room trampolines, vegetable gardens and table settings.  It is a journey in balancing choice and responsibility through prepared places and life-changing processes with a much bigger purpose in mind. Yes, this book is about interior design — the interior design of independent, happy children. And that, I’d venture, trumps granite countertops any day. 

“From the layout of the kitchen pantry to the extended bedroom light switch — small adjustments add up to one grandly important “process” of becoming whomever your child is meant to be. “Home design” for an Asperkid has nothing to do with fabric swatches. It is, instead, the gift of a thoughtful adult who creates a place which will make possible the process of “becoming” an extraordinary person. It’s lovely. It’s doable. And it doesn’t require a whole bunch of gadgets or gizmos.

For an Asperkid to tap into whatever individual, unique gifts she was meant to bring into this world, she’s got to come home to a place where she can learn to trust her ownpowers. Hooks and trays, dust brooms and daily activity charts. These are the tools of everyday superheroes…brave, honest, loyal children…[whose] lasting notions of independence, safety, self-worth, respect and joy will stand upon the “home bases” we design.”

Like those astronomers of long ago, we’ll look further.  We will extend the simplest of skills to the deepest levels of wonder, revealing hundreds of specific opportunities for joy and discovery in every nook and cranny.

“Home,” simply put, is where our children’s stories begin.  Asperkids live in a world which constantly reminds them (in condecending smiles and whispered insults) of all the things that won’t come easily.  And yet, they cannot escape.  Day after day, year after year, they must venture out into a loud, scratchy, chaotic and often-unkind reality where they’re expected to please adults, develop a sense of self-worth, win friendships, manage a career and maybe even find love. They are, without a doubt, superheroes. No capes. Just courage. And us.

Though we might wish to, we can’t give our children lives absent of danger or heartache. But, what we can give is a grand and beautiful telelscope…a perspective as unique as their own: that, past the clouds, there is limitless majesty and infinite possibility. Archimedes said, “Give me a place to stand, and I shall move the Earth.” And so we shall, Asperkids. We will give you “home.” And we will watch you move the stars.

Jennifer Cook O’Toole is the author of Asperkids: An Insider’s Guide to Loving, Understanding and Teaching Children with Asperger Syndrome (2012), The Asperkid’s (Secret) Book of Social Rules: The Handbook of Not-So-Obvious Social Guidelines for Tweens and Teens with Asperger Syndrome (2012), and the forthcoming The Asperkid’s Launch Pad: Home Design to Empower Everyday Superheroes (April 2013) all published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Part of our celebration of World Autism Awareness Month 2013- see more posts on Autism, Asperger’s Syndrome and related conditions.

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