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How I learned to stop telling my son not to talk to strangers

Our bags were packed and we were ready to go; but there was just one last thing I needed to tell my 11-year-old son about our trip to New York City.

“Don’t talk to anyone,” I warned him. “People in New York are busy, and they won’t want to stop and listen to what you have to say.”

I could see him thinking about this, but I knew he wouldn’t heed my advice. He is on the high end of the autism spectrum. He doesn’t understand social cues and is fixated on what he wants to discuss with people. He is constantly approaching strangers — in stores, at church, during sporting events — and telling them facts about his latest obsession.

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Most of the time, people smile and acknowledge him; and sometimes they turn to me and remark about how smart he is. Sometimes, but very rarely, they will simply glance in his direction and keep walking.

Those times break my heart, but I get it. Not everyone wants to listen to a young boy talk about Egyptian pharaohs or sit through a tutorial on how to break into the Nether in Minecraft.

So before I took him and his 10-year-old brother on a big-boy trip to NYC, I felt I had to prep him a little. We lived there when they were just babies; and after a decade, I was finally taking them back to see all the places we had been talking about.

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I recalled that when we lived there, the times that I would break out my Midwestern hospitality by holding doors for people and telling them to “have a nice day,” I was often met with scowls and glances that seemed to say, “Lady, you’re crazy!”

I wanted to prepare my son for these reactions. Head down, keep walking, don’t stop the crowd flow by trying to talk to people. People will get annoyed.

Once again, I was proven wrong. Once again, his autism surprised me.

Everywhere we went, he was engaging in conversations with people. And those conversations left people smiling and laughing. They left people with a bit of delight to continue carrying through their day that — up until that moment — had been hum-drum and routine.

Whether it was the police officer in Times Square who stopped directing traffic long enough to hear about Star Wars, or the server at the Korean coffee house next to our hotel who got an earful about how coffee beans are harvested, or the hostess at Serendipity who learned more about Buddha than she ever wanted to know, or the taxi driver who hesitantly pulled over for a shorter-than-average 11-year-old who was hailing a cab for the first time (and ROCKING it, I might add), he left everyone he met with delighted smiles on their faces.

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So many people that I didn’t think would even stop and talk to him did just that. He didn’t care that the “rule” was not to talk to anyone. His personal rule is to talk, to connect, to impart his wisdom to other people.

When he was done talking to them? He would tell them to have a nice day and maybe hold the door they were going through for them. And no one acted like he was crazy.

I thought I knew everything there was to know about New York City. I thought I was going to be teaching my son some valuable lessons.

On the contrary, I got schooled. I learned how to take New York by Autism.

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