Issue No. 41, November 2012

“I would never have found my courage if it hadn't been for you.”

~ Cowardly Lion

Lessons from a Not-So-Cowardly Lion

“What makes the elephant charge his tusk, in the misty mist and the dusky dusk?” the Cowardly Lion asks through narrowed eyes. “What makes the muskrat guard his musk?”

We all know the answer.


As a child, the annual broadcast of The Wizard of Oz was a near-religious event for me, and Lion is still one of my most beloved movie characters. Though decades passed before I realized it, he shaped how I came to define courage within myself and later, in my children.

Long before my sons’ challenges with ADHD and autism compelled me to charge my tusk or guard my musk, I knew myself to be a cautious, unadventurous, worrywart. Opening myself to bold experiences always seemed to reap nasty rather than lofty consequences. It didn’t make me feel courageous; it made me feel stupid. I sailed past my 30th birthday accepting that I would never be known as a valiant person.

Then I had my kids. I had to learn much, and very quickly, and contrary to the cliché, it was brain science. I learned to predict, to prevent, to educate, to ameliorate, to intervene, to advocate, and I did it all because those two little someones stirred me to love more deeply than I could ever have imagined. One of their teachers urged me to write books about my parenting attitude and experiences. And some of the people who read my books saw me quite differently than I saw myself. A mom at an autism conference raised her hand and said, “Your courage is simply inspiring. But I just don’t have that. How did you find your courage? To do all you’ve had to do for your children?”

Fear, I told her bluntly. My children stirred me not only to love more deeply than I ever had, but also to fear more penetratingly. I found my courage through that raw fear. Or perhaps I didn’t find it, perhaps it found me. I can’t say it better than I did in Ten Things Ever Child with Autism Wishes You Knew:

I could not bear to imagine Bryce’s fate as an adult if I did not do everything within my power to equip him to live in a world where I would not always be around. I could not rid my head of words like “prison” and “homeless.” His quality of life was at stake, and failure was not an option. These thoughts propelled me out of bed every morning and drove me to take the actions I did.

I recalled a long ago sermon by a clergy person who described three kinds of courage. The first he called courage that doesn’t know any better. This courage is born of naivety, inexperience, lack of knowledge, a courage that comes from being unaware of the risks and consequences of our actions.

The second kind he called courage that has hit rock bottom. We summon this kind of courage when we have no choice other than surrender and defeat. He told the story of a 19th century man who had invested years in writing a book. When he finished, he asked his best friend if he would read it and comment. The author entrusted to his friend his one and only copy of the book. The friend left the manuscript on a hall table, where a maid came along and threw it out. The author, upon learning this, sat down and starting writing his book all over again.

The third kind of courage the clergyperson described was courage that has said its prayers. We summon this brand of courage when we acknowledge our fear, we know the risks, and we take action anyway because the consequences of taking no action or lesser action are unacceptable.

Lion embodies courage that has said its prayers. He knew the risks. When the Wizard charges Dorothy’s  party to kill the Wicked Witch, the Lion asks, “What if she kills us first?” When the Witch captures Dorothy, his desire to rescue her overcomes his dread fear and channels it into courage.

As Dorothy leaves Oz, she tells Lion she’ll miss how he “used to holler for help before you found his courage.” In my wizardless world, hollering for help is a hallmark of courage. Lion may never have found his courage at all without the support of the people around him. They stayed elbow-close to him, believed in him, wouldn’t let him turn back, even needed him to lead at one point. In time he became their equal. Scarecrow, Tin Man, Lion and Dorothy became a formidable team and accomplished their goal. That goal is not so different from ours—they were trying to help a child move from a dangerous, threatening environment to a safe, healthy one. Our foes may not be witches or flying monkeys, but the challenges of autism can make our world an exquisitely intolerable  psychological, physical and physiological environment for our children with autism.

Lion was actually more courageous than he knew. Right from the start, he acknowledged his problem and reached out for help, from strangers yet! Like Lion, I hollered for help all along the way. People with brains and heart answered me. Teachers and therapists, family and friends, oh my! The mom at the autism conference, who claimed she hadn’t the courage, certainly had the seeds of it in her. When she addressed me, her voice quavered through the first sentence. By the time she got to “How did you find your courage?” her voice was strong. She asked a tough question in front of a hundred people, and the act of doing so was part of her answer.

“I would never have found it if it hadn’t been for you” are Lion’s last words Lion to Dorothy. I may never have found my courage if it hadn’t been for my children. I might have gone on thinking of courage as something defined by acts of daring, death-defying, historic heroism, something I could never hope to achieve. How did you find your courage? I found it by putting my feet on the floor each morning and simply doing what needed to be done. I didn’t think of it as courage, so I didn’t know I’d found it until the day I came across a framed piece of calligraphy in a beach-town gift shop that read “Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the small voice at the end of the day that says, ‘I will try again tomorrow.’”  (Mary Anne Rademacher, 1994) I found my courage because I wanted my children to find theirs.

So I would add a fourth brand of courage to that list I heard so long ago. I would call it courage that grows from quiet tenacity. I watched Bryce grow into just such a courageous young man. Despite the sludge of medical, social, sensory and communication difficulties his autism dishes out, he gets up every day determined to try again. He graduated as valedictorian of his class, and I can’t emphasize enough that his achievement came from 90% courage and heart and 10% brains. (See his essay, “I Choose to be Optimistic” in my last newsletter, link below.)

I still do not think of myself as a particularly courageous person. However, I had to smile over a sweetly serendipitous email that arrived the very day after I began writing this treatise on courage. “Thank you,” it read, “for being a fearless crusader for quality of life and better understanding of people with learning differences.”

© 2012 Ellen Notbohm

Did you catch Bryce’s essay in my last newsletter?

As my guest author, Bryce’s essay “I Choose to be Optimistic” drew wide praise:

“Deeply moving. It will  mean a lot to many in our community. It certainly means a great deal to me.”

“Bryce’s words were inspirational to me.  . . truly a remarkable young man.”

“I wish all of my students could go out into the world with that kind of positive attitude, confidence and courage!”

“He is, for certain, a wise old soul. Such depth to his thinking, from a 20 year old!”

“If there were more people like him in our society today, there would be so much harmony and good will among men.”

“The most moving essay I have ever read. Thanks to Bryce for his candor and his heart.”

Read it here, for the first time, or again.

New, expanded edition of Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew available now!

#1 on Amazon’s Hot New Releases in Children’s Health, October 2012

“Make no mistake, these aren't ten baby concepts which will only hold true for a small part of your child's life. They're adult ones, mantras for living, and they apply forever . . . a book that will get you thinking and a book that could change your life. It probably should be required reading for all parents of children on the spectrum.” ~ Gavin Bollard, Life with Asperger’s

Order now at Amazon

Read a full chapter excerpt, “Help Me with Social Interactions,” on my website

This month in Autism Asperger’s Digest

Perspective: Alike, Not Less.

Each year, autism “awareness” rises to ever-louder levels of analysis and controversy. Each year, we who live and work with children with autism step up the dialogue about what makes our kids different from typically developing children. And talk about it we must, because it is the basis for spurring the kind of action we need to be able to equalize some of these differences, to teach our kids the skills they’ll need to join the flow of life and community as productive adults.

But it’s only half of the discussion. . .

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Book excerpts on website

Cick here for book excerpts

New! Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew, updated and expanded edition
In its entirety, Chapter 8: Help Me with Social Interactions

Ten Things Your Student with Autism Wishes You Knew
In its entirety, Chapter 3: I Think Differently

1001 Great Ideas for Teaching and Raising Children with Autism or Asperger’s, 2nd edition
"What We Miss in Misbehavior” and "Game Plan for Meltdowns"

The Autism Trail Guide: Postcards from the Road Less Traveled
“The Power of a Cookie”

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©2012 Ellen Notbohm | Third Variation Strategies