What is like to be unwelcome in the world?
Henry and I occupy the space of unfriendly vibes at the afternoon playgroup, the shoe shop lady rolling her eyes in contempt at a meltdown over the sound of Velcro, and the salon owner who suggests a spanking at the winces and cries evoked by the sound of buzzing clippers. Where conversations oscillate between the events and the day and long, half-clear stretches of The Little Prince recited in English, Spanish, Japanese. Where the numbers illuminating the microwave are a source of fascination, and where the redundancy of questions on a Sunday afternoon might constitute the sum of all our talking for the week. Where the mundane is both beautiful and miraculous, where the landscapes of snow covered peaks are less interesting than the tiniest cell tower on the top of the farthest mountain, where every emotion arrives like a tsunami.
I am at once fascinated by the workings of a mind living in the space of autism and totally in love with the child who has brought that version of life to me. I would not have him any other way.
The rest of the world, however, is less inviting of difference.
I glanced down at my phone yesterday afternoon, and found a missed call from a friend. An instructor at a community college in the south, she is herself a bit socially awkward. Of all the people in my life, it is she who most readily demonstrates the traits of autism, tending to drone on about those things most relevant and interesting to her without regard for the interest of her companions...a strange discomfort with eye contact…reflexive laughter and a host of personality quirks I find both endearing and a bit diagnosable. So I was even more surprised at the voicemail, where she lamented about a student on her campus:
He has…he’s autistic. But he’s…well…he’s just creepy. He gets really close to you. WAY too close, and then asks all these questions that he’s asked like a million times, about your birthday and what kind of car you drive. And then he follows you and keeps talking. He followed me today. So that was fun. Not like that isn’t totally creepy. His person…caretaker…whatever they call them, they need to tell him that this isn’t socially acceptable. He needs to stop.
I was reflexively angry, if not wholly confused. She had, essentially, described the very traits that make a person “autistic.” If he didn’t have difficulty with social interactions, if he didn’t experience a need for repetition, he probably would not be defined as having autism. Basically, you’re asking him to be neuro-typical, which he is not. It would be like asking him to cease being male. It’s not actually HIS problem. It’s YOURS. It's your reaction to the audacity that he might exist in the world in a form that you don't like that is the sum of the problem.
And then I thought of my own sweet son, who likes to read names. We’ll walk the aisles of a store, and he’ll go up to each associate with a nametag, every person with their name embroidered on their pocket in slick thread, and excitedly recite their moniker aloud. He asks them if they are a brother or sister, mother or father, aunt or uncle. He smiles happily back at them. It’s his version of an introduction, and it makes my heart skip a beat when I think that he wants to greet the whole of the world. He doesn’t care about their age or their physicality or the social status or their dress. Only that they have a name, and that they belong to someone. It’s who I wish I were.
Of course, he is in a world where people are closed to one another, where social conventions are more important than heart or the feeble attempts of a little boy to talk – something we thought he might never do – with another human being. In that world, he is “creepy.” He is strange. The checker in the store is impatient with his questions, the man at the hardware stores ignores him altogether. And even though my son is different, he is real. He feels all the same things other people without autism feel…hurt, sadness, shame. He is ashamed when he is passed over for being a person who dares to live with autism. And as his mother, that breaks me.
Those people who treat my son with dignity, who answer the questions long after they have tired of hearing them, fill me with joy. On a fall morning, Henry and I sat outside on the patio of a small coffee shop down the road from our home. The barista emerged, and took a seat next to Henry. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen you. Do you remember me? I’m Allison. I’m a sister. My sister is Jill. Those moments of grace are hard to measure. They are magic.
My son, like so many with autism, has a lot to offer the world. Unlike the rest of us, he isn’t concerned with the trappings of convention or aesthetic. Where other people walk a line, he sees a pool of dots. That young man, roaming the community college campus asking for birth dates and models of cars is really playing a game of verbal catch in an attempt to create connection amid a lot of disconnect. Is that creepy? No. It’s human. And if you don’t wish to entertain it, you can politely decline. My guess, however, is that those around him are less concerned with invasiveness, and more irritated that he is not like them, not following the social rules…which is nothing short of asking a blind man to dream in color. It's asking him to be a person without autism. It ignores all the amazing gifts or talents he might have, the kind of wonderful human being he might actually be, simply because he is different.
I didn't call her back. I decided that she didn't deserve to know him, anyway. He probably never noticed her awkwardness, her inability to look at others. She was quick to take his inventory. I decided that she should continue to deprive herself of a whole world of people - one in 88 - as a favor to those who see beyond convention.