Monday, March 31, 2014

Autism, Competence, Adding Kemal to Mustafa

A very long time ago, a mathematics teacher, Captain Üsküplü Mustafa Efendi gave his best pupil, a boy named Mustafa, the additional name Kemal, a name with a depth of meaning that I will simplify and say means maturity. This Mustafa went on to be given the name Ataturk, meaning "father of the Turks".  When our son was born, we named him Mustafa. We did not know then he was neurodivergent. We felt, if he could carry the name well, and became the young man we hoped he would be, we would add the name, Kemal. Because maturity is not born. It is earned.

I have said before that my son Mustafa is a heroic figure. Born in a day and age when having a name like Mustafa makes you the target of instant enmity, he orchestrates his life in rich, ripe, silences, punctuated by occasional gifts of a word sprinkled like salt and pepper over good soup. His hands flap as he conducts the symphony of the day that he has selected on his computer and he stands to do so. He is free to be himself at home, and because he is imposed upon so much outside our home, certain spaces, like his bedroom, are his to control except of course for cleaning them, which is a joint effort. 

The most heroic scenes in Mustafa's life do not take place in public. They aren't filmed and uploaded for viral video potential. No, those episodes happen quietly, at unexpected moments. This is the month when you'll hear the worst things about my son and his peers. He is, after all, the most apparently autistic young man. He cannot hide his neurology. So I wanted to share one of those moments because something good needs to be said about my boy right now before the landslide of negativity and fear buries us.

I have been ill, and combined with fatigue, it has made it rough to go through my scheduled days with Mustafa. He senses this and has begun doing small things to compensate for the slowness in my movements and the times when I must sit and wait. I had reached a moment when pain shot through me and I sat down with the shock of it. Then Mustafa did something surprising. He sat next to me a put his arm around my shoulders. He sat with me until the pain passed. He pushed me sideways indicating I should lay down. When his father, concerned at the sudden quiet found us Mustafa had covered me with a blanket, returned to his room, and was sitting back down at his computer, continuing to go about his business as if I was with him. He would occasionally stand by my bedroom door, checking on me.  He did not request any assistance from his father. It stunned me. His father assumed I had wrapped myself in the blankets and fallen asleep. I had not. Mustafa simply did for me what I do for him. He realized I needed to rest.  He took care of his mother.

In his life, with its professional presumption of incompetence, these moments are heroic because they fly in the face of assessments that insist data driven observation knows who he is and what he is capable of feeling and doing. His range of knowledge, capacity for empathy, or what he might do if allowed to make his own decisions to the degree he can are all glimmering in these moments of greatness.  Mustafa is eleven. What he did for me is beyond the scope of what many eleven-year-old boys today would stop to assess and do. 

A few years ago I spoke to my husband about the idea that should Mustafa master communication we might add the name Kemal to his name. I don't think we need to do that now. He has matured without the name. Mustafa kemale ermek yolunda. Meaning Mustafa is on the road to maturity.  Happy Autism Acceptance Month my son.  Thank you for taking care of me.



  1. lovely! Good job Mustafa! Indeed a mature young man :-D

  2. Kerima,
    Thank you for sharing this story of your amazing son.

  3. Great moving testimony Kerima, I always tear up when I sense the abundance of love from parents toward their children. People on the autism spectrum are gifted one way or another, they all are despite what doctors and 'specialists' will have us believe. They are in a sense no different than other kids: they all need respect for who they are, understanding, compassion and love. This is the only approach to any child to get the best out of her/him unfortunately we live in a system that believe in punishments and reprimands toward children that don't comply with what is considered an 'appropriate behavior' whatever that means. I advocate rewards instead on top of the qualities mentioned above. You are an example of how priceless your interaction with your son based on love and respect can work wonders. So beautiful to read, thanks.

  4. This. Is. Beautiful.

    ...exquisitely beautiful

    Thank you for your words, Kerima

  5. This is beautiful! Many congratulations to Mustafa Kemal on earning the addition to his name.