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My Father, Autism Advocate

Author: Merrick Egber (June 2018) While you’ve heard from me about my interpretations of ideas, entertainment, and historical origins, you’ve never heard from the people who brought me up from birth.  For Father’s Day, and my birthday, it was decided that one of the articles should focus on my relationship with my father and an interview with him about autism and what I’ve taught him about the condition.

My father……a documentary producer, community advocate, lawyer, cultural advocate, and a singer/guitarist, presenting Mitchell Egber!

Question 1. How much did you know about autism prior to my diagnosis?

(Mitchell Egber) Very little. Like many people of my generation and before you were born, my first exposure to autism was the Academy Award-winning film “Rainman”. I remember at the time that Dustin Hoffman’s was often described as a “high-functioning” autistic due to his “savant” abilities. Over the years, however, I came to learn that autism covers a wide spectrum of personal attributes of individuals, but I think the savant aspect from “Rainman” still remains an attribute many people think of. Interestingly, I just read an article about the actual “Rainman” who may not have been autistic. As an aside, when I think back the first movie character that I remember which may have been autistic may have been Boo Radley in “To Kill a Mockingbird”, though, in the end, he was a heroic character, may have established a stereotype not particularly beneficial to the autistic community in the ’60’s.

Question 2. What were the most authoritative sources for learning and understanding autism?

(Mitchell Egber) Certainly, the internet has exploded with articles and websites on the subject and may be the single most important source in understanding autism. There is not a day that goes by that Google or another site runs an article on autism. I think non-fiction articles and websites like Tony Attwood’s (an expert and advocate for those with Aspergers) you can learn quite a bit and gain a greater understanding of resources one can access. Moreover, films such as the Oscar-nominated documentary “Life, Animated” can bring a greater understanding as well as hopes for parents and caregivers. The Emmy winning film on Temple Grandin is also pretty good.  But I also believe fiction books also have a positive impact such as the bestseller “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time “. Carson McCuller’s 1940’s novel “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” though not specific to autism, deals with people who are marginalized by their disability and is a good fiction novel to procure more empathy for the disabled. 

In the end, the more knowledge and outreach that is out there, the more neurotypicals have a greater understanding and acceptance of those on the spectrum.

Question 3. What have I taught you about autism by being your son?

(Mitchell Egber) You have taught me that people on the spectrum have the same dreams, desires and the general need for a quality of life as everyone else and that whether it be autism or another disability, those individuals clearly have to work harder for acceptance in our modern society. But I think our modern society, for the good, recognizes that those on the autistic spectrum have the ability to contribute to our society like neurotypicals. You contribute in that regard through your personality and qualities when you meet others to break barriers which leads to more understanding. This is one of the reasons, as I’ve told you many times, you are my personal hero. Not just because you are my son, but also because of the person you are. You got your college degree on your own, became employed on your own and taught both me and your mom that one can achieve important things no matter how difficult or how many barriers you face.

Question 4. What do you think about my work for the Els for Autism Foundation? How do I serve as a good model for autistic individuals by being a worker there?

(Mitchell Egber) I think it is very rewarding to work for an organization where you are contributing to the betterment of other disabled individuals. It is like “giving back” to the community, but in a more direct way as you can bring your personal skills to help others whom you can certainly relate and empathize with. Students can see you as someone on the spectrum contributing on a daily basis to make their lives better. If even one student can one day be inspired and look back and say “there was this guy named Merrick who was on the spectrum and worked at my school and made a difference, therefore so can I” all of us can take pride in your work at the Foundation.

Question 5. If you had to speak to any other parent about autism, what would you say?

(Mitchell Egber) The world is different for children with autism than it was even just fifteen years ago. Though there are still mountains to climb, we are living in a more enlightened age, so hope is not just a word anymore.  People are taking action such as Ernie and Liezl Els to help those on the spectrum have a chance to lead fulfilling lives. The internet – and the digital age in general, i.e. computers, cell phones, etc., – have been exceedingly beneficial to those on the spectrum. I think the most beneficial thing, even though it is still an uphill battle, is that society is seeing that people with autism are like anyone else in our society, are individuals and should be treated as such.  I know it is difficult to learn of and accept that your children have been diagnosed as autistic, but as I said previously, we live in a different time where society is moving towards acceptance and understanding. That can only be a good thing and I think parents can be more optimistic about the future of their children and their ultimate happiness, which in the end, is what we all strive for in life.