When I was in school, I learned that our solar system consisted of nine planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. Venus was fiery hot; Mars the most similar to Earth. Jupiter had a bunch of moons, and Saturn had those cool rings. Tiny Pluto rotated at the perimeter, icy and dark.
I felt bad for lonely Pluto, forever following in the shadow of bigger, more popular Jupiter and exotic Saturn. Or beautiful blue and windy Neptune. Or even Uranus, who was funnier. Yes, funnier. My college roommate discovered a newspaper article entitled, “Probe Reaches Uranus.” This might have been a significant astronomical milestone. We didn’t care. The clipping stayed on our fridge until graduation and never failed to make us laugh. Hey, we were practically teenagers. Anything and everything was funny back then, but especially something that involved the words probe and anus. Even if you use the alternate pronunciation (“urine-us”), the title is still pretty funny. Like I said, we were young, and for me at least, Uranus will forever be the funniest planet.
Dark, mysterious Pluto seemed the perfect metaphor for the perpetual outsider. How could it ever compete? Or even fit in? As a result, Pluto was my favorite. I guess I’ve always had a thing for the underdog.
So imagine my shock when I learned last month that Pluto is no longer considered a planet. What? How could a planet stop being a planet? How could that be? I felt my entire world shift on its admittedly wobbly axis. Not only was Pluto an underdog, but now it had been demoted to a less-than-planet status. I was filled with righteous indignation.
I did some research and learned that while some astronomers feel exactly as I do—that once a planet, always a planet—the bulk of astronomers today agree that Pluto is no longer a planet but rather a dwarf, icy body. How that differs from a tiny, icy planet I’m still a bit unclear but apparently there are many of these icy bodies rotating at the farthest edges of our solar system. Pluto was merely the first, and the largest, that we’ve discovered.
This cheered me up a bit. At least Pluto has earned a sliver of distinction, and if it’s no longer a planet, then it’s free from any planetary competition, imagined or otherwise. More importantly, it’s no longer alone.
I’m fairly certain Pluto doesn’t care whether it’s a planet or not, doesn’t reflect on whether it’s lonely, but I do because Pluto reminds me of individuals with autism. Like Pluto, they are the underdogs, rotating in their own lopsided orbit, forever on the fringes of society. We alter diagnostic criteria and change their label, but we never ask ourselves how it must feel to live in a world that doesn’t speak their language. How it feels to be a perpetual outsider.
Study after study has found that individuals on the autism spectrum often feel lonely and isolated. Even their families feel the weight of this burden. I know from personal experience that autism is isolating, particularly for my daughter. Katie longs to connect with others but doesn’t know how. I try to help, but even I do not speak her unique language. Even I cannot plum the depths of her mysteries.
Maybe like Pluto, the label is not what’s important. It’s that everything, whether demoted planet or an individual who differs from the norm, has a place in the bigger system. That others share your orbit as we all make the collective journey around the sun.
Until next time,