If you researched the definition for the word “superhero,” you would find many explanations ranging from fictional to non-fictional characters. My personal definition would include the non-fictional characters. My husband would top that list for many reasons, but the two superheroes I would like to share with you today are my two sons.
My son Tommy is autistic, and my son Jack is diagnosed with asperger’s syndrome. This means both are on the autism spectrum but function at different levels, and both have their own set of strengths and weaknesses. I have learned much from my years of raising them. While finishing my teaching degree in elementary/special education when I was 52, they were my greatest teachers.
Two young men with different abilities: both living their dreams
My sons are 31 and 33 years of age now and we are in a different stage of teaching in their lives. My sons are my superheroes because of what they have taught me and the young men they have become. Some of what I have learned from them have been: how much we take our sensory system for granted, that bad behaviors can be a means of communication and not always defiance or disobedience, and watching your child play will tell you a lot about what his/her body needs. Comprehension doesn’t always come in traditional ways—sometimes we need to think outside the box. We tend to judge people by what we see on the outside without ever knowing what’s truly on the inside; different doesn’t mean less.
My boys are my superheroes because they love life and live it on their terms; they look for the good in everyone and are not judgmental; they have learned to use their strengths to compensate for their weaknesses; they are very caring and concerned for people; they do not see color and they love everyone, and they are well mannered, but most of all, they remind me that none of us are perfect—yet God still uses us to do mighty things.
Most parents want their children, whether challenged or not, to live full lives and achieve their dreams. Our family is no different, but it does come with its sets of challenges. I had always wondered what their desires would be as adults. Jack has been able to go to college, get a degree, work seasonally for Disney, own and drive a car, and work with me through self-employment. Tommy, on the other hand, at this very moment, might always live with us. He has the mind of a 10-year-old and is obsessed with superheroes and Disney. He is our biggest dreamer and this is why I titled my book after him. He is a goal-setter and energetic go-getter who does not stop until he gets what he wants. His mind is forever creating and dreaming up new things. He is the lower functioning of the two, yet the most productive, self-motivated, and the biggest dreamer we have. As his mom, I am on a mission to help him achieve his dreams and become as self-sufficient as he can be—whatever level that may be.
Meet Tommy Man: the brand, business, and superhero
That being said, my book, How to Train a Superhero: A Story of Autism, is about my journey of raising my sons: the challenges we faced and the lessons they taught me. It is the foundation and basis for helping Tommy realize his dreams. You see, Tommy designed a superhero costume. I made it and he is on the cover of the book. His character he calls himself is “Tommy Man.” Tommy spends hours upon hours painting, writing, and researching to obtain all he wants in life. I tell everyone he knows and understands just enough to want what everyone else has in life (wife, house, and cars), but not all the complicated and emotional requirements that come along with them.
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I had decided long ago during some earlier experiments I had done with Tommy that no matter what level he would be able to function at as an adult, I was going to teach him to use his strengths to build a life for himself. Believe it or not, Tommy has dreamed of having a line of Tommy Man clothing he has designed; we are going to write a series of children’s books with his character, he is creating all kinds of Tommy Man products, and he even thinks Disney is going to make a movie about his character.
All this is the makings of our new family corporation which Jack and I are trying to build. We are taking our superhero’s dreams to create our superhero life. We are working on getting the trademark as we teach our way through marketing and promoting a book, looking for clothing manufacturers, designing logos, and trying to master social media. We busy ourselves trying to book speaking engagements, events, conferences, and much more. It has been a slow process (at least in Tommy’s eyes) to get things off the ground. There is so much more Jack and I must learn and work through; however, Tommy just wants it all done now. Therefore, to slow him down and give him a perspective on time, I wrote a visual business plan for him to help him grasp when and how things will happen. He uses a goal thermometer and a budget to achieve his financial dreams. It was something I taught him years ago to harness his wants. Despite these things, we still do not move fast enough for Tommy!
Taking inspiration from Temple Grandin
Every family and person facing autism has their own set of challenges and story to tell. If I have learned one thing from my children, it is that what works for one does not always work for someone else. However, when we know and understand those challenges, we can develop ways to overcome or make the best of them. Something that changed everything about my parenting, in their younger years, was when I read Temple Grandin’s books. In reading her story, I saw similar behaviors in my sons and was able to understand the possible causes of them. Her books taught me how to look at things differently so I could become an expert on my children. I will be forever grateful to her for that.
We get praised on our children all the time because of the things they have overcome and achieved. I passionately believe it was because of the research and what we learned from Temple. For this reason, we are sharing our story. I am not an expert on autism; I am an expert on my children. Research and strategies have changed since my sons were diagnosed years ago. Therefore, our goal is to share our stories in hope of encouraging and empowering other parents. We want our story to impact families the way Temple’s impacted ours. We want to be an example that shows parents and children alike they can use their exceptional differences and strengths to become their own real-life superheroes who impact their communities and the world in a positive way.
This article was featured in Issue 113 – Transitioning to Adulthood