The United States of Autism
Sometimes on the open and vast roads of America, when you’re hours from civilization, a moment can change everything.
Long after you’ve lost sight of the mile markers for the day and in the still of a cool desert night, when you can feel through a steering column the hum of spinning wheels, hear the dull droning of tires and asphalt and the relaxed breathing of your companions slumbering by the trust in your driving skills hours upon hours without end, it can happen in an instant. For me, it was here that I began to see something on our 40 day, 11,000 mile journey across America for autism, something that brought me to a spiritual reckoning in the wastelands of our nation. Let me take you to where this moment was born 5000 miles prior, in the small town of Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
My son hadn’t spoken a full sentence in over a decade. We all here know the story well don’t we reader? Lost his speech at two, regressed, and unlike many children, never came back fully despite thousands of dollars of therapies and treatments. Coming into an inevitable confrontation with my own psyche’s limitations, I had no choice but to take a journey in search of answers that refused to reveal themselves to me.
With the help of the Pepsi Refresh Project, the unwavering support of my magical wife, and thousands of families around the nation, we won a $50,000 grant to travel America and make a film answering questions for not only myself, but for others out there dealing with similar challenges. Yet, less answers poured in and more questions bubbled up. What would I find? Could my team go the distance in such a short time? Could I answer the burning question for my own son residing deep within an abyss of silence along the way? Well, perhaps because I’m so often the fool, I just left with a Google calendar filled plan to see 21 families, individuals, and leaders, booked some hotels, and got a crew that was even more foolish than I to follow me out there in that vast expanse called America. Like the Millenium Falcon, I just hoped this thing would hold together.
What did I encounter on my journey so far to help piece together this one brief moment on a dark desert highway?
I found parents and individuals from all kinds of backgrounds, as diverse as America itself. Protestant. Catholic. Mormon. Jewish. Muslim. Atheist. Caucasian. African American. Hispanic. Filipino. Chinese. Korean. Arabic. Poor. Wealthy. It didn’t matter. Autism affected them all in some way, and yet each one represented a unique moment of insight, an ally along this unfolding journey.
Still, after 5,000 miles, I was getting tired. Sixteen hour days and going on three weeks work with only two days off was beginning to take its toll on all of us in the vehicle. My eyes burning as I scanned the road for anything in that empty horizon, the moment came to me as clearly as I sit here typing to you.
The road faded, and a vision of a large gathering of people, thousands upon thousands, walking and marching together formed across the desert landscape. An unclear but strong voice came from them, like a summer thunderstorm sweeping plateaus on the horizon. They were people talking about autism yes, but also with brave new words I didn’t quite understand, about renewing what seemed to be a thing they called America, if but a strange America that was looking to these people to draw strength from rather than the other way around. There were speakers emphasizing coming together like the AIDS movement did in the 80’s and 90’s so long ago, about humanizing a cause beyond the realm of ivory towers. At the podium I saw few people I knew personally, and yet, I recognized them somehow, as if through déjà vu we had met in some distant past life. Yes, I knew them- I felt their presence and their connection to greatness. They were the leaders that America had been yearning for so deep within its dwindling wells of character, where a renewal in the Spirit of what it is to be true, to be courageous, and to be the rock upon which a generation could be built were formed. They were representatives of the very best of an America I had loved as a child. And I don’t know how long I experienced this transcendent moment, it seemed like an eternity, but all I know is that I had never been so proud of a group of people to take that stand for each other. Then, as the vision slowly faded back into the starry night, I didn’t know if I would ever touch this time with my own hands, but I knew a part for me to play was happening as I drove those caffeine hyped hours in the middle of nowhere for my son’s future.
With the moment dissolved and my focus back on the vacant road, I smiled and knew I had found a small something in my quest for my son. It wasn’t the only thing I had found so far for sure, but for now it would have to do as I was only two more hours to the Texas border and sweet rest after a twenty-two hour day.
I had no doubt there would be more moments to come.