Opportunity comes in strange places

Many people today ask me how I knew the boys were intelligent as toddlers. I remember back in those early days when the only difference between the boys’ assessments were the degree of how bad it was going to be. And by this time in my career, I had spent over 20 years in medical research and one that always followed the science, the data, and what the specialists said. 

But in those early days and in the midst of all the confusion, a single voice spoke up with a contrarian view. I don’t care what they say, I know the boys are intelligent. It was Val, my wife and the boys mom. An educational psychologist and elementary teacher of some 20 years, she broke ranks with her peers and stood up and said stop.

And from Val’s determination and the events that followed, a great many journeys began leading to our families emergence from autism. When the crisis hit our family, I started to wonder about my childhood and what influenced me to be the person that I was. And my thoughts drifted back to my relationship with my family and particularly my father.

Thinking about my Dad

My dad came from a generation where money was tight and nothing was thrown out before its time. As an engineer, he spent a lot of time in his car, driving from job to job. He repaired crushers in quarries, installed milk separators in creameries and built elevators in some of New York’s tallest buildings. And when I was old enough, I got to go on some of these jobs with my Dad.

But the times I really looked forward to was those days when I descended into Dads workshop to rebuild his car. I remember those long evenings where an engine would be reduced to a vast array of shiny nuts and bolts, shafts and pistons. Our tools included little jars of grinding paste and sticks which looked more like something from a toy gun than the key to the cars future. Deep in this small, meticulously kept workshop, I learned everything there was to know about Dad’s cars and the world they pervaded.

Dad was a man of very few words and I’m sure he often left the workshop with me, exhausted from my chatter. But over time the conversation shifted from me asking questions to dad setting tasks for me which he would rigorously inspect and critique afterwards. And one day he said it. Enda, you will make a great engineer. I don’t see that there is anything that you could not fix. If you want to go down that road, I’ll do anything I can to get you there. And he was good to his word.

Life repeating itself

I cannot say if I became a great engineer, but I never forgot the lessons I learned in those wonderful father and son times. So here I was years later with my twin sons, boys of whom I was told it was but a question of time before society would completely reject them. So I did something that few in my family could ever come to understand. I picked up a car that had slid into lake Michigan, spent days underwater and subsequently froze in the depths of a New York winter. A complete write off. And then a new adventure started with my sons, just as I had done with my dad 30 years earlier.

Together the boys and I stripped this car back to the metal, and over years we explored a vast array of mechanical and electrical engineering. And much like in Toy Story, no part was too small or unimportant to repair. And as with many people who have touched our lives and that of the boys – all we needed to do was reach out for help. Pro Bono parts from scrap yards across the world flowed in to enable my sons, my profoundly disabled boys, to do something that no one believed was possible. Engineers took time to advise and inspect. All so the boys could bring this car back to life. And bring it back to life they did.

So it was with some trepidation that I asked Western motors, a top class workshop in our neighborhood, to take a look at our work and let us know how we ultimately had done. This was no small ask. I was requesting that the boys and I would be allowed into this workshop and go through the project together. Here was a huge and meticulously maintained workshop, with a place for everything and everything in its place. The floors were so clean that I worried about bringing in our outside shoes. And most of all, it had a long standing record for excellence. A place my Dad would have been proud to be associated with.

And what was the result? The car passed with flying colors. Not that they did not point out a couple of items to be tidied up just as my father would have done. And the reports on the car ran to dozens of pages which covered all kinds of things from the engine to the light bulbs. And in the midst of the workshop I could feel the presence of my father long past, smiling that I did indeed learn something valuable all those years ago.

Lessons learned

For all the technology that we surround ourselves with, life is about opportunity and being allowed to embrace opportunity. We all learn by doing and through this we make our contribution to the world we live in. We didn’t need Facebook or cell phones to come along to connect us. We are naturally connected by our experiences and how we share them through the generations. And what this means is we don’t miss the obvious, that all human potential requires is an opportunity to blossom. And the responsibility to make this happen falls to all of us who are gifted with a life on this earth. And I for one feel blessed for the opportunities that my sons have presented to me.

NUIG autism research Speech Therapy, Speech School, Autism, parenting, Kids Speak

And what has all this led to? The boys have taken their combined experiences and are working to create opportunities for others also born less than perfect. Working on a global stage, they are now lead researchers in the creation of language technologies for autistic children. But that’s another story. A story that started with a crazy idea about a car in Lake Michigan and a father’s belief in his son.