You’re probably curious right about now…why would an autism support group be called The Thorn Bush? Well, the name comes from a story by Arnold Lobel, one of our favorite children’s authors. He’s most famous for the Frog and Toad books, but this story comes from a book called Mouse Soup. It’s short. I wish I could reproduce the illustrations too.
A policeman is concerned because an old woman is crying. Upon entering the house, she shows him a thorn bush growing out of her chair in the living room. When the policeman offers to extract the thorn bush from the chair, the woman forbids him. She’s not crying because she’s been hurt by the thorns. She’s crying because the thorn bush is dying. The policeman suggests that they water the chair. The thorn bush flourishes once again. Large roses blossom near the leaves. She exclaims, “You have made my house beautiful!” The policeman receives a kiss and a bunch of roses as a token of the old woman’s gratitude.
You can listen to the mouse of the title narrate the story here. The story begins at 18:10 in the video. Yes, the voice of the mouse is Buddy Hackett.
At the risk of intruding on your personal interpretations, I want to share a few thoughts about the story. I suppose if you had to state the theme in one sentence, it would be this: The determining factor between something being “good” and something being “bad” is your attitude towards it. That’s not a new idea, but it’s a bit simplistic for our purposes. After all, nobody has ever jumped up and down shouting “Hooray! Hooray!” after being told their child has autism. No matter how many positive aspects we discover about our children’s differences, the fact remains that their autism will complicate and frustrate their lives in numerous ways. It’s hard to look that in the face and call it “good.”
But notice how the story doesn’t ask you to.
The old lady in the story is honest about her thorn bush. She implies that she was baffled by its appearance in her life. She tells about how it hurt her.
And then she says she loves it.
You don’t have to love autism. I myself don’t love it. I feel affectionate toward it sometimes, when I think about how my daughter’s PhD-level vocabulary and memory are probably due to it. But I feel the very opposite of affection for it when I look at my son, soon to be four, and try to imagine what it’ll be like when he says his first word someday. You don’t have to love autism. But you can’t just yank it out of your life, either, like the policeman was about to do with the thorn bush and the chair. Notice what the old lady says: “I have been sitting down all my life.” Your child’s autism marks a new chapter in your life. You may feel woefully inadequate to deal with it. I know I do. But Mother Teresa said that God does not choose the equipped, He equips the chosen. We may have been sitting down all our lives, but now it’s time to stand up.
The old lady accepts her thorn bush. She has decided that it entered her life for a reason, even though she doesn’t know what the reason is. If she had let the policeman try to pull it out of the chair, as was his instinct, I have a feeling he would still be pulling. We don’t like to hear people say or imply that we need to “accept it” when it comes to our kids. We think of it as code for “let it be,” when all we want to do is help and help and think of new ways to help. The truth is, acceptance doesn’t have to mean rolling over and giving up. Acceptance means finding the joy that’s waiting for you. It may be well hidden. It may feel like it’s hidden in the bottom of a pile of huge stones that have to be moved, one by one, in order to get to it. Move the stones. Find a way to move them. It’s worth it, to find the joy. I accept my daughter’s autism when I rejoice that even though she’s invading some baffled stranger’s personal space, chatting to them about how common grackles come to our bird feeder but not great-tailed grackles, at least she wants to communicate. I accept my son’s autism when I refuse to mourn about how he can’t ask me to lift him into a swing, push him in a swing, say “Wee” in a swing: all things I see children half his age doing. I refuse to mourn because look at his face when he’s swinging: pure joy. His face is lit up like the angels in heaven. I don’t call what’s “bad” good, but I don’t let “bad” blind me to the good, either. And I don’t tell “good” to wait until all the “bad” is gone. These little moments of acceptance are the water poured on the thorn bush: they are what make the blossoming, the beauty possible. Acceptance doesn’t mean you stop working. Work unceasingly! Teach sign language, do floor-time at home, seek out therapies, try whatever you think is worth a try. But remember that only finding the joy can make it bloom. Only joy can make it seem like a journey instead of a struggle.
Only joy can turn a thorn bush into roses.