The Pygmalion Effect

Man carrying baby near the lake
Kathleen Patterson, Parent and Guest writer

I usually preach humility and any success is celebrated quietly in my family. I am allowing myself to break this rule to highlight a moment of sheer bliss in my life—my very own Olympic medal, my Everest. A few days ago, at the age of 22, my son Alexandre was admitted to the master’s program in Public and International Affairs that he had applied for, with an entrance scholarship and an honorary scholarship. My son was diagnosed with autism at the age of 7, just as he began his first year of elementary school. 

Back then, I knew little about autism except for the few pages I had studied in the DSM-IV at university. The school setting was hardly ahead of the curve when it came to services for autistic students. How will my son fare; how will I fare as a parent? Following the results of the psycho-educational assessment, the teacher informs me, rather uneasily, that she is at a loss as to how to work with children like Alexandre. I realize that in her class, my son will be perceived as a problem. The school psychologist suggests that students like Alexandre be placed in a behavioural class. I am heartbroken. The diagnosis does not change my son. He remains the same inquisitive, introspective little boy to me, with a passion for space and history. I soon discover that in the eyes of other people, he is now different. Reluctantly, I agree to visit the “special” class recommended by the school. I don’t know what to expect, but I am under no illusion. Is it possible that life is throwing us a lifeline at just the right moment? If so, I think that was the case the morning Alexandre and I visit Ms. J.’s and Mr. P.’s classroom. The way they look at Alexandre and their warm words make me instantly feel that my child is being treated as an individual in his own right. Some moments are turning points. That day, as I leave that classroom, I decide that despite the hurdles life throws at us, Alexandre will succeed. I am convinced of that. I choose to believe in him. 

Of course, this is only the beginning of a long adventure. The following years are full of learning and often challenging moments. At the end of grade 6, my son has just mastered reading. According to the psychometrician, a young person like Alexandre should attend a life skills-based program in secondary school. He suggests looking into a trade and tells me that my son does not have the ability to go to university. These predictions are further compounded by new diagnoses of learning disabilities and anxiety, along with the usual ups and downs associated with transitions from childhood to adolescence. Math is a source of much frustration and even crisis at school. Social skills, fine motor skills, speech challenges - everything is impacted, especially self-esteem. Not easy to grow up in the shadow of others. Along this journey, we are fortunate to meet exceptional people who are amazingly supportive and who, like me, recognize my son’s potential and ability to bounce back from challenges (I believe this is called resilience…). I keep believing in Alexandre. By the time he graduates from secondary school, my son is a responsible young man full of integrity and a devoted big brother. Perseverance in the face of adversity and acceptance of oneself and others as they are in a world that incites conformity are the gifts Alexandre has bestowed upon me over the years. As a parent, I often wondered if I could have done things differently. Looking back, I have come to the conclusion that what I would change if I could turn back the hands of time is my response to all those who have discussed children and youth like Alexandre with me. I would tell them to take the time to see everyone as a unique being. Our children are a reflection of the gaze we cast on them— the Pygmalion effect in a way.

A few years ago, while on a family trip in Western Canada, my wonderful son asked me on the ferry from Vancouver to Victoria if I was disappointed that I had a child like him. The question made my heart skip a beat, and after I had recovered from the shock, I told him this: “One day when you were 11 years old, we were in a public place and a young transgender person walked past us. Two teenagers were walking behind them, laughing at them. I asked you if you had seen what had happened and you told me that two boys were laughing at a person, but you didn't know why. I explained to you that it was because that person was different, and you said: “Everyone is different.” I think your kind and wise heart are your most precious qualities. So, no, I am not disappointed. It is an honour to have a son like you.” With a serious look on his face, he replied: “Thank you. I know I am different, but I think it is others who are bothered by it. Do you think Ryan will fare better?” Ryan, my second son, Alexandre’s little brother, also has an autism diagnosis. This conversation moves me deeply as we have rarely discussed this subject with each other. I realize how profoundly my son, now a young adult, has journeyed into the soul. I also realize that for Alexandre, for Ryan, for our family, there are still challenges to overcome, obstacles to surmount and prejudices to overturn. But I am confident. Confident that the world is changing and that one day we will speak more in terms of neurodiversity than in terms of the labels we attach to those who, like my children, deviate from the norm. The essence of our job as parents, as my husband points out with his critical look at our tendency to seek to label everything that is different, is to teach our children to believe in their own potential and to challenge what society presents as a given. Today, I celebrate the success, but more importantly, the courage of Alexandre and all those like him who continue to carve out a place for themselves in society, not in spite of their differences, but thanks to the enriching qualities that these differences bring to our world.