Yesterday was the biggest media opportunity of my 25+ year career in the horse industry. Two kind souls flew up from Los Angeles to film and to understand Square Peg Ranch through the lens of the America’s Best Racing doing a promotion with Autism Speaks. Today is world Autism Awareness day and I woke early this morning thinking with pride wonder about the day. There was also the never ending self-flagellating thoughts of “things I should have said.”
So many things to process from yesterday. Things like:
Parents told their stories while their kids illustrated them with laughter, wonder and simple joy. The camera caught the exhaustion of a family with a child having an autism “rough day.”
The crew treated everyone with kindness and patience – with humor and respect.
The horses were beautiful and well behaved – except for some adorable silliness.
The staff, the volunteers, the families all laughed and played and revealed their most authentic and awesome selves.
The barn looked great – our hard work showed.
I couldn’t have asked for a better day.
I know enough not to expect anything. What the editors will do with the footage is filed under the giant category labeled “not mine.”
But I’d be lying if I didn’t fantasize about “what if?”
What if this footage inspires people in all sorts of ways? Hopefully to donate, but maybe more importantly, to have discussions over dinner tables – to patch up family rifts – to show compassion to a neighbor you might more fully understand, or at least be curious about. Maybe someone smiles at that mom in the school parking lot.You know, the one with the bizarre kid that nobody plays with. I’d like to think those smiles might make a difference for her.
When the interviewer asked me what I understood about autism, I mumbled something about “autism is a spectrum and everyone is different – blah blah blah.” What I should have said is this:
“Autism is best described in the literal sense; autism literally means ‘locked within the self.’ Autistic people want what everyone wants. They want love and safety. They, like you, need community and dignity. Talk to any autistic adult and they will tell you two things – that loneliness and anxiety are the biggest hurdles.”
On Autism Awareness day, I should have been talking about dignity. Because it’s as vital as the air we breathe and too many people are taking up that vital air debating vaccinations, different therapies, cures, bickering and snarking.
Why aren’t we talking about Dignity?
Kindness, awareness and even compassion all too often morph into something that smells an awful lot like pity. Pity makes anyone feel “less than” and nobody wants your pity. Treatments and therapies can only go so far if we don’t begin with an understanding of the simple need for human dignity. Otherwise, it becomes just another exercise in making the person being treated feeling alone and more isolated.
Being Autism Aware is a start. I’m grateful for that start. But today, I challenge you to step past “awareness” and even over the bridge of kindness and into the beauty of human dignity.
Awareness means acknowledging that mom in the school parking lot. Kindness means asking if she wants to join your mom’s group for coffee some morning. But dignity means making an effort to find out what her child loves and bringing his strengths and intelligence into his peer group. Giving him an opportunity to share what he loves and giving it your genuine attention and curiosity is the truest gift. Listening is an act of love – especially when you don’t have the time. Developing an interest in what a person is passionate about is the key to unlocking autism – the missing puzzle piece if you will.
What I’ve learned in all these years -what I saw come to light in front of the camera yesterday is what my friend Rupert Isaacson told me years ago and I wasn’t brave enough to hear it – is that in giving that gift of dignity – all of your dreams – and I do mean all – will be realized. An added bonus; you will meet people that will rock your world.
This isn’t isolated to autism of course – it’s the same for anyone whose dignity is at risk because of depression, addiction, mental illness or other social stigma. Listen, lean in – give a sh*#.
I spend my days on the stunning California coast with beautiful horses, laughing children, sleeping dogs, goats that endlessly entertain. I’m surrounded by a loving family and friends. This is the life I’ve dreamed of since I could remember dreaming and it’s all possible because we spend our days in service delivering the simple and necessary gift of dignity.
What I saw yesterday at the ranch and what I dare to dream the camera and editors will reveal on national TV is that it’s laughter and caring that connects us. It’s in listening to and treating each other with dignity that makes our dreams come true.
Sermon over – I’m going to go and play with horses.
(all photos are the fantastic work of Robyn Peters)
6 Replies to “Things I Should Have Said…”
Joell, what you’re doing at Square Peg is fantastic. Be proud. Enjoy whatever this brings. But know Square Peg is awesome no matter what.
PS-Robyn is a rock star. Sniff.
Things I Should Have Said… when asked ‘tell us about Joell Dunlap’, in my exhaustion I spoke about how warm, loving and compassionate Joell is (which is true!). What I wish I had said is that Joell is A BAD ASS, HARD CORE advocate for LOVE and COMPASSION. She works tirelessly every hour of her life to make this world a better place and she’s my HERO. xxoo
Thank you, this is beautifully written. I am an autism mom and a volunteer at a therapeutic riding facility; I’ve experienced the magic. I wrote yesterday about moving beyond awareness to acceptance, and I love your stand on dignity. Thank you again, and best of luck.
Margot, We love what you are doing at Square Pegs. Your picture shows how much joy you feel with your work. Donna and Herb
Joel,what can I say, but awesome! Your words are beautiful and truly show your understand and big heart. Amy has grown so much in the three months on site. Amy you are amazing thank you for being our daughter..