My daughter Samantha, a 31- year-old autistic performer, told me she didn’t want to go to an “optional” rehearsal with Jonathan, her music coach—just four days before her very first one-woman show. That’s when explaining the nuances of meaning embedded in the word “optional” to my daughter became both imperative and challenging.

Samantha defended her decision. “I told him I couldn’t go because I had to be at my friend’s birthday party in New Jersey.  He SAID it was optional,” she added, realizing by my facial expression that I strongly disagreed with her choice.

In fact, I couldn’t believe my ears. Samantha was prioritizing a birthday party over rehearsing with her band for the one and only time before her very first one-woman show! She had just recovered from a cold and needed to test her vocal chords before performing. But she hadn’t even considered the idea that she could do both events or show up at the party a few minutes late. “Remember our conversation about prioritizing career over friends?” I tried to remain calm.

“But Jonathan said it was OPTIONAL!  Optional means it’s NOT required,” she insisted angrily, as if I were an idiot.  “Don’t you understand that I need to meet my friends at Penn Station at 4:30?  We need to take the 5 pm train in order to arrive at 6 pm.”

Samantha was on the edge of losing her temper and so was I.  When people say “don’t you understand,” my blood starts to boil. But I reminded myself that people with autism can be very literal and have difficulty deciphering language and situations that are not black and white.

“Do you really want to miss your ONLY rehearsal with your band? Don’t you want find out whether voice is strong enough to perform at your best? Do you want to wing it or be well prepared?”

Samantha ALWAYS likes to be prepared. So, a long discussion ensued.  I explained that rehearsals are never optional. Her acting coach totally backed me up later that day.  “If you want to succeed in the super competitive entertainment world, forget the word optional.  You must always go the extra mile, because if you don’t, someone else will and that’s the person who will get ahead.”

I offered an academic analogy that I knew Samantha understood. Students who “volunteered” and worked for “extra credit” were more likely to get A’s than those who only did “required” work.

“So ‘optional’ really means ‘required’ most of the time?’ Samantha asked, trying to process this apparent oxymoron.

“Yes!  Exactly.”  But the conversation wasn’t close to over.

“Role play with me.  Tell me when something IS optional,” my daughter challenged me.

Sigh.  “If you already have another commitment that’s obviously more important than the rehearsal, it’s optional. The important other commitment could be an actual performance, for example, or a friend or family member dying is in the hospital and it’s your last chance to visit them. Also, if you’re sick with COVID or another illness and contagious, you skip anything and everything, (optional or not). You can always check with me, when a situation comes up and you’re not sure how to interpret ‘optional’. you’ll realize that ‘optional’ is mostly always a lie and you’ll just do whatever is asked unless it harms you or others.”  (And, no, I didn’t teach her the word “oxymoron,” though I know readers would be impressed if I did. Maybe someday.)

Meantime, Samantha was willing to think through her Friday schedule and realized that she could go to her “optional” rehearsal and still be on time to meet her friends at Penn Station.

It turned out that the rehearsal space was only a few blocks from the train station.  She could easily “mix and match” and fulfill both commitments.

The rehearsal was a success.  Samantha’s voice was back. She christened her back-up musicians “The Awesome Sauce Band.” A few days later, our daughter and The Awesome Sauce Band gave a wonderful performance of “My Resilience and Inspirations.” Most of the audience had no idea that Samantha had been sick, or that there had been so much sturm and drang behind the scenes.

A happy ending, for now.


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