My son has always been a little bit quirky. When he was 4, he carried a set of orange plastic spoons wherever he went. I constantly feared he would walk off with a stranger because he would follow people around the grocery store trying to tell them facts about China.
On his first day of kindergarten, all the other children were sitting quietly in their desks, and he was pacing the room — around and around and around. He loved to recite commercials he had seen or books he had read for anyone who would listen. He was miserable at sporting events because they were Just. Too. Loud.
When he was 9 years old, a doctor diagnosed him with autism. To me, the diagnosis didn’t make any difference because he was still the same child who loved to talk, read, watch TV and collect things, and who hated sports and had no fear of strangers.
Except the older he got, the more I started to notice the shocking ways people treated him.
He has no real friends; and despite being taught about social cues, he still has no boundaries. He will walk up to any person at any time and begin to talk about anything that is in his brain.
Adults’ reactions shock me the most. Some, women I assume are mothers, will stop and politely listen to him; and then tell me how smart he is. I smile proudly and we walk on as I remind him about appropriate social behavior.
Still others, mostly men but not always, will completely ignore him. They won’t even look at him or acknowledge his presence. I've come to expect that kind of reaction from adults. Some people are just more patient and tolerant, and others simply cannot be bothered.
However, other children’s reactions never cease to amaze me. Wherever we go — whether to a trampoline park, pizza place, one of his brothers’ sporting events, or even our own neighborhood — if there is a group of kids, he will approach them.
I always tense, waiting for their reaction. I stopped running in to rescue him long ago. He is 12 now and needs to learn to navigate social situations on his own. Most kids will look at him like he is a freak and walk away. Others will be visibly confused by his behavior, might answer a question of his, and then walk away still trying to figure out what just happened.
Still others, the ones I assume were never taught to be nice, will say something nasty to him or tease him; some even going as far as following him around and tormenting him. These are the times I have to step in, put on my “teacher voice,” and reprimand them.
Even though it’s upsetting for me as a parent to watch how children his age treat him, I understand it. I understand that kids are still learning about other people and how to react; and I understand that some kids are just plain mean. But I also understand that my son’s in-your-face approach to socializing can be a lot to take for most kids.
There are still other times that he will approach a group of older children — teenagers and young adults — and I’m truly shocked by their reaction. From the young couple in line at the video store to the group of teenage boys hanging out at the basketball game, I find their reaction is always the same: kindness and tolerance.
I see their initial confusion when a little mousy kid butts into their private conversation, but then I see the recognition dawn across their faces. Then the smiles come, the responses to his queries, and the high-fives he always requests before he walks away. Then they look at me, standing in the wings waiting to swoop in and save my baby bird if need be.
They smile at me, as if to say, "I get it. I understand him, and he’s OK."
Honestly, it makes my mama heart sing knowing that the dialog is changing for our young people. Somewhere along the way, they are being taught about differences and are learning tolerance and acceptance.
Maybe the older people who ignore him are just stuck in their ways, and maybe the young kids still need time to learn; but the generation in the middle does get it. They do understand.
It gives me hope as his mother that navigating the world won’t be so hard for him because there are people out there who are ready for him. People who are willing to be tolerant and accepting, and maybe even want to be his friend.
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