I’ve been wanting to put this post up for a while. The second annual World Autism Day gave me the impetus I needed to actually finish and publish it.
A while ago I was in the waiting room of a local children’s clinic, waiting for my son’s doctor’s appointment. There was another boy there with his parents and his grandmother. He was probably about 12, and while I’m not sure what exactly was wrong with him, he had some obvious developmental delays. I watched as his grandmother took him outside in the small garden adjoining the waiting room, and the boy expressed obvious delight in nature and the outdoors. When he came back inside he came up behind me and gave me a hug. It surprised me at first (I didn’t realize he’d come up behind me), but then I turned around, gave him a big smile, and said, “Hello.” He smiled back. His grandmother immediately rushed into a defensive explanation of him and his behavior. I just smiled and said, “I know.”
And I did. While I didn’t know everything that this boy was struggling with, I understood him in a way I wouldn’t have a couple of years ago. I knew he struggled to communicate what he was thinking and feeling. I knew he had a lot of love in his heart. I knew he wanted to be accepted. I knew that more than anything else he wanted a kind word and a smile.
A few years ago, this interaction would have unnerved me. I wouldn’t have known what to do when the boy hugged me. I wouldn’t have known what to say to his parents. I would have felt awful for looking at him, afraid I was staring, but also felt awful for not looking, as though I was ignoring his existence.
I’ve thought a lot about why I used to be so uncomfortable around those with mental or behavioral disabilities. I’ve determined it probably goes back to elementary school. There were a couple of mentally handicapped boys in a Special Ed class that sometimes came to our regular classroom. I think if they’d been there a lot it wouldn’t have been a big deal, but they were only there once a month or so, and I remember being very uncomfortable then as well. They couldn’t speak or really interact with us, and I just didn’t know what to do around them. I’m sure the teachers tried to give us some guidance, but they probably didn’t have a very good idea of what to do with children who couldn’t interact or learn in normal ways, either. At a time in life when a lot of what you’re learning is social norms, it’s hard to know what to do around those who violate those social norms, so you try to ignore their behavior, but you often end up ignoring them.
Being the mother of a child with autism has changed all this for me. I now often wonder how I could have possibly not known what to do when one of these children interacted with me. They obviously want the same thing that, deep down, all of us want when we interact with others — a kind word and a smile. And those things are so easy to give.
I know I used to be more uncomfortable around the parents of these children as well. Again, I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what I should ask, what I could ask, what they would like to tell me, what would make them uncomfortable. So I generally just avoided the situation entirely. Now I know exactly what those parents want — an understanding smile. And I try to give it whenever I have the opportunity. When a child is melting down in the grocery store, I smile at their parent. When a child pushes my kid at the park, and their parent rushes over in horror, I smile, and try to smile at the child as well (though I’ll generally include a nice “no pushing” along with that smile). When I see someone, child or parent, at the end of their rope, I smile at them.
If I have the opportunity, I ask them about their kid. They generally start with a (sometimes defensive) tired explanation, “He has autism (or whatever).” I respond with, “I thought he might,” and go on to ask about how old the child is, where they go to school, what they like, if they have siblings, or whatever else comes to mind. What parent doesn’t like to talk about their child?
I’m not sure why it took me having a child with autism to figure out that the best reaction to any special needs person (child or adult, or parent of said child) is a smile and a kind word. You would think it would be obvious. But apparently I was a little slow myself. I’m grateful to have my son to teach me these things, and to bring into my life the great blessings of understanding and love.