In a recent post, Elaine Hall, the founder of The Miracle Project, wrote about special interests in autism. In it, she wrote about the importance of working with a child's special interests and how these interests may lead to employment in adulthood. I think she's very much on target, but I've learned that a special interest can have deeply positive effects in a person's life, even if it doesn't lead to a career. Take one of my early special interests - the work of Jim Henson.
Awhile back, while wiling away a Saturday afternoon on YouTube. I came across some clips from Jim Henson's memorial service. As I watched, I was overcome with powerful memories and emotions - especially when viewing a segment called "Jim's Favorite Songs". It started with typical Muppet-type silliness, shocking me into laughter - but somewhere in the midst of it, my emotions swung to the opposite extreme. By the end of the final song, "Just One Person," I was a blubbering mess.
It was a song that always touched me particularly, since Bernadette Peters first performed it on the Muppet Show. I had it on vinyl and I remember listening to it over and over and over again. When the record warped, I became so upset that my father went to great lengths to figure out how to fix it - a "don't try this at home" operation that, as I remember, involved two panes of glass, a couple of lengths of corrugated, and an oven set on low. Fortunately, it worked.
Watching as these words, so meaningful to me as a young person, were being sung in tribute to Jim, by the very people who DID believe in him, and who worked alongside him to help him achieve his dreams, touched me deeply. At the end of it, I found a touch of my old fixation, coming back. I chastened myself for it. "I'm a grown woman!" I kept thinking, "I've got to shake this."
After catching myself humming the song, yet again, almost two weeks later, I began to wonder - is there something more to this? There were some powerful emotions going on here, but what were they, and why were they there?
Around this time, I stumbled across an article that brought it all together for me. It described the results of a study, which examined the values and themes in popular TV from 1967 through 2007. According to the article, "Researchers found the old shows exalted benevolence, self-acceptance, community and tradition, while modern shows stress fame as the No. 1 value."
Interesting. It got me thinking...was there a connection here?
Over the years, I'd taken a lot of flack for my Muppet obsession. I was seized by Sesame Street, and just wouldn't let go. I bored my peers to death with stories of Bert and Ernie. I was teased, "You're a baby! You're too OLD to like Sesame Street." Then my focus moved to The Muppet Show, slightly more socially acceptable - but still not cutting edge enough for some of my peers.
My peers were into things that were more in line with what the study showed as more popular in "modern" times. They were focusing on fame, dressing up like celebrities - immersing themselves in the glamour of Hollywood and pop music. These were things that only made me feel bad. I didn't see myself becoming famous, and the girly stuff, well, I always felt I struggled with that.
What did I need? Well, I was prone to sadness and discouragement. I struggled to fit in. I'd get down on myself. There were times that my "differentness" got the better of me - and when the dark side of my personality came out, that was when I sought out the Muppets. It was an adaptation - an attempt to emotionally "self-correct."
Someone not well versed in subtlety, I needed clear, positive messages to counteract my negative internal ones. In these shows, they weren't hard to find. They came directly, when celebrities like Diana Ross sang:
"You can be what you want to be, learn what you want to learn. Believe in yourself, just believe in yourself. You can try what you need to try. No-one should question why. Believe in yourself, just believe in yourself. Folks might say you're different, that you've gone and lost your senses, but the world is yours to walk in. Go ahead and leap the fences."
And they came via example, when Kermit the Frog got self-reflective or Gonzo got down on himself for being different. They'd sing about their sadness, about what they wished they could be...but in the end, they'd always find their way back to self-acceptance.
The world of the Muppets was a world where everyone was welcome - no matter your ethnicity, or background, personality, abilities, or even your species. I needed to believe in a world like that. They made me laugh, they made me cry and they made me smile when smiling was sometimes hard.
My parents indulged my interest in the Muppets. Not particularly big on conformance themselves, they reasoned that as long as it wasn't hurting anyone and it made me happy, then it made them happy. In an effort to connect with me, my father even learned to mimic Kermit's signature "Yaaaaay!" Whenever he wanted to get me pumped up about something, he used his Kermit impression to do it. It worked.
As Elaine Hall wrote in her post, not all are as accepting today. As she wrote: "Well-meaning educators and therapists work tirelessly to refocus these children's interests into more 'appropriate activities.' Time and time again, I've witnessed kids with special needs kicking and screaming when they fail to comply with the norm, and they are coerced away from their preferred interests."
To me, such a situation is an opportunity to ask, "Why?" Why do they seek out this interest? Is there a need that they are attempting to fill? If so, how can you help them meet it? How can you help them meet it, if you don't even ask?
My interest in the Muppets was never going to lead me to a career. While I appreciated their talent, I never had any interest in being a Muppeteer - but that didn't mean that my interest didn't serve an important purpose. Fortunately, my parents got that.
What I learned was far deeper than a career. I learned about living life. About resilience. About coping with pain and sadness, and coming out the other side. All that is represented well in the words of Richard Hunt's eulogy for Jim:
"It's important that we all stop giving ourselves such a hard time. We've got to remind ourselves, and push ourselves, to let go - there's not much we can do except to be, and in being, become aware. See what's going on around you all the time, and allow it to happen: all the sadness, all the joy. And that's why Jim's last words are most important: 'Please watch out for each other,' he says. 'Love everyone and forgive everyone, including yourself. Forgive your anger. Forgive your guilt. Your shame. Your sadness. Embrace and open up your love, your joy, your truth, and most especially your heart.'"
This past week, September 24, would have marked Jim Henson's 75th birthday. He died too young, but his legacy still lives on. It's there in the lives he touched, and the people he inspired. Like me.
For more on the Legacy of Jim Henson and the Muppets:
For more on special interests in Autism