Whose Planet Is It Anyway?

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Welcome to Italy

In the widely read essay Welcome to Holland, having a child with unexpected needs is compared to having your flight diverted to Holland when you had planned to visit Italy. The author advises parents that they should appreciate the landscape of the place where they happen to be, instead of feeling upset because they did not end up where they had anticipated.

The essay does a good job of pointing out that the issue is one of expectations and that different is not necessarily worse. Still, it doesn't go far enough because it takes for granted the existence of vastly different expectations for people who are sorted into various social groups, instead of challenging those expectations as the artificial, prejudiced, stereotyped cultural constraints they are.

So I've written my own essay describing how an autistic parent might react to having a child with unexpected needs. (Note: this parody does not reflect my actual opinion of non-autistic children. It's meant to illustrate why people would be better off if they did not go into parenthood with any particular set of expectations.)


I am often asked to describe the experience of raising a child with a constant need for socializing—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 restful vacation trip to Holland. You do some Internet research on the history of windmills and other fascinating topics, and you make your plans. Quiet, leisurely art museum visits. Peaceful walks through tulip fields. Painting windmills in a pastoral landscape. Maybe you'll read train timetables in Dutch. 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 Italy."

"Italy?!?" you say. "What do you mean Italy?? I signed up for Holland! I'm supposed to be in Holland. For years, I've perseverated on going to Holland."

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

The important thing, you tell yourself, is that Italy is not a horrible place, even if it's full of chattering crowds and soccer hooligans. It's just a different place.

So you must do more research. And you must learn a whole new language. And you will meet a whole new group of people you would never have met... and a lot more of them than you might have wanted to meet... and they'll be calling your home phone at all hours of the day and night, wanting to talk to your child...

But it's just a different place. It's noisier than Holland, less comfortable than Holland. After you've been there for a while and you catch your breath, you look around.... and you begin to notice that Italy has pretty gardens and museums, too, even if they're always full of yammering tourists.

Your friends are sending you e-mails from Holland, with attached photos, and telling you how much they enjoyed the quiet tulip gardens and the windmill tours. You know that they're just sharing their experiences and don't mean to be unkind, and you try not to let it bother you, but you always find yourself saying, "Yes, that's where I was supposed to go. That's what I had planned." And that feeling of loss will never go away.

But... if you spend your life mourning the fact that you didn't get to Holland, you may never learn to appreciate the joys of stadium crowds stomping their feet on metal bleachers, birthday parties with dozens of giggling adolescents, celebrity magazines strewn all over your floor, and boom boxes blaring popular songs with totally unintelligible lyrics... in Italy.

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  • This is destined to be a classic. It is absolutely perfect!! "Maybe you'll read train timetables in Dutch". Yes, well, maybe in your retirement years.

    By Blogger Bev, at 11:25 AM  

  • Lummy! I don't know what Nonna would have to say about that!

    The 'Italy' piece was always a hoot for me after we actually visited Italy [family] rather than tourist crash places. i.e. real Italy that bears little relationship to that famous piece.


    By Blogger Maddy, at 12:04 PM  

  • That was fantastic :D. I definitely prefer Holland, I think my children must be the only ones I know who had the Sunlight Year Book 1892 list of MPs and tidal moon dates read to them one afternoon. However, I have one child who is autistic and one child who appears to be non autistic. Does that mean I will flit rapidly between both countries, regardless of time and space, a la Doctor Who? :P.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:28 PM  

  • I couldn't help myself, I had to get in on this one:


    By Blogger Bev, at 2:04 PM  

  • Hysterical! And perfect.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:16 PM  

  • I love it, ABFH.

    By Blogger J, at 2:18 PM  

  • I am presently in Italy, where our family had a quiet and wonderful dinner. Also in the restaurant was a young baby, and her parents. Everyone was kind and so generous. Personally, I think that the differences between people in the same ethnic groups are so broad that they swamp the small differences people will draw attention to (i.e. the stereotypes).

    May you all find joy in what ever "country" you find youself.

    By Blogger Jennifer, at 4:48 PM  

  • I have yet to meet a person who went into a major lifechange without some kind of expectations.

    Even if you land where you expected to, sometimes the destination can be a lot different that you were expecting it to be. We were expecting Venice to be full of mosquitos, and it wasn't. On the other hand, we did not expect Florence to be a complete tourist trap, and it was. We had similar fun in India- we expect living in the village to be rougher than it was, and living in the international hotels to be easier than it was.

    It is human to have expectations. When you're bound for Delhi, you should expect it to be hot- so pack your t-shirts instead of your winter coat. That isn't discrimination. That's thinking ahead, making appropriate preparations. It's kind of silly to expect a baby and not make sure there's a place for that child to sleep in your home.

    I would have liked for more attention to have been given to the possibility of special needs children in our prenatal classes, though. That's where that discrimination thing really kicks in. When heading to Delhi, packing a sweater isn't a horrible idea- you might end up on a sontaneous train trip to the Himalayas, after all. If you are only told about the heat that pervades the greater part of India, you might be unprepared to go up to Himchal, and you'll miss the cool mountain mornings and seeing the snow on Everest from afar.

    By Blogger Joeymom, at 11:32 PM  

  • Welcome to Pluto! we feel is an even better description for our lives with 6 ASD angels.

    Look for us next month on your store magazine stands. Which mag is still a secret.

    By Blogger Dadof6Autistickids, at 12:36 AM  

  • Hi Autistic Bitch From Hell

    That was a very funny post. You are right it is not just about expectations. it is about values too.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:14 AM  

  • Thank you for this post. I like to read essays representing autism from point a view of reciprocity .

    I would like to ask for your permission to translate this post to Hebrew and post it in my blog, with a link to the original post and writer of course.

    Thank you.
    Sharon G.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:22 AM  

  • Sharon -- yes, certainly you may translate and repost this essay. I'm glad that you enjoyed reading it!

    By Blogger abfh, at 9:57 AM  

  • Hebrew version

    thank you abfh.

    Sharon G.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:39 PM  

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