The Magazine

Fathers and Sons

‘Special’ children in a less-than-special world.

May 13, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 33 • By TEMMA EHRENFELD
Widget tooltip
Audio version Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

His argument is clearest in his chapter on prodigies, who often suffer from dyslexia and asthma and acquire language late. Extreme musical ability may actually be the hypersensitivity to sound associated with autism, and taking music away from a child can help relieve his symptoms. Solomon quotes Leon Botstein, a former wunderkind: “If Beethoven were sent to nursery school today, they would medicate him, and he would be a postal clerk.” 

The problem is that parents don’t know how their kids will turn out—whether they’ll be miserable Beethovens, just miserable, or happy postal clerks. Solomon’s parents often face situations in which helping a child cope may require suppressing a trait, sometimes even surgically, which could cause pain. 

Turning differences into difference—much as some in the gay movement have adopted the term “queer”—Solomon calls for a new civil rights movement in which members of  the many stigmatized subcultures he describes rally together. “It’s time,” he writes, “for the little principalities to find their collective strength.” 

Imagine the Mall in Washington packed with people with all kinds of handicaps—some visible, some not—and, crucially, their parents: The crowd might simply look like humanity. That’s Solomon’s point, of course, but what exactly would they be marching for? Each of these groups has its own specific “special” needs. 

Early on, Solomon points out that his subjects didn’t want to be lumped together even in a book: “Deaf people didn’t want to be compared to people with schizophrenia; some parents of schizophrenics were creeped out by dwarfs; criminals couldn’t abide the idea that they had anything in common with transgender people.” It’s a comic moment, deeply revealing of his theme that bias is everywhere. Yet does it help people, politically or psychologically, to gather together under the banner of outsiderness or stigma? What we will surely see is more advocacy for the disabled. People with Down syndrome are living into their 50s. The many children diagnosed along the autism spectrum are growing into teenagers. The demands on social services, schools, churches, and extended families will grow.

The parent in this volume I will remember best is Sue Klebold, whose son Dylan seemed normal until his death: “He was a pretty-close-to-perfect child,” she says. “He made you feel like a great parent, because he did everything right. .  .  . He was very malleable.” She now thinks that malleability made him vulnerable to his more powerful friend, Eric Harris, with whom he killed 13 people at Columbine High School. The Klebolds stayed in town, where some of the victims’ families sued them, but Sue Klebold could speak with people who knew and liked her—and more important, she says, had liked her son. Immediately after the tragedy, she wished that she had never been a mother, but over time, her feelings changed: “I know it would have been better for the world if Dylan had never been born. But I believe it would not have been better for me.” 

In the end, I am most persuaded by my friend’s take on Solomon’s thesis: 

A lot of people find comfort in “everything is for the best” thinking. Had a disabled child? All for the best. A rocky marriage and divorce? All for the best. A past substance abuse problem? All for the best. I wouldn’t stand in judgment on how other people cope with tough stuff in their lives. But from my hard-minded rational core, I’m not sure that anything, good or bad, is “all for the best.” My son and I are going to relocate for a couple of months this spring so that he can have 10 weeks of treatments. The costs in time and family disruption are high, and the benefits are quite uncertain. So we’ll see.


Temma Ehrenfeld is a writer in New York.