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We’re rafting down the Pigeon River in the Smoky Mountains, TN. Our guide is chatty, extremely knowledgeable about his field of work. The day is perfect. I have my boys, Tech, Face, Shadow and Minion, and we’re floating with the grandparents down the river. The only thing that would complete this is if Dad were here, but he’s deployed and so is military life. As the guide talks, Grammie asks a question about how many people they float down the river in a year. He replies about 50,0000 and goes on to say “all kinds.” He talks about the group from the blind and deaf, how they’ve had people in wheelchairs, lots of nationalities, races, etc. Finally, he goes on to say they “even” had autistic kids. Um…you have 2 on your boat mister. He says how you couldn’t even tell that some of them “had problems” and that they’re surprisingly great at it. This is where I wish I had said that 2 of my children have autism. Before I do, he continues on how it’s easier when they fall out of the raft because they love water. The trip concludes with a bus ride back to the starting point. In an effort to entertain the group, the guides are making jokes and being silly. A group of them start poking at our guide for a mistake, saying that he belongs on the “short bus.”
Rewind 1 week and I’m out shopping with Tech and Minion after getting haircuts, prepping for the trip. Haircuts is it’s entirely own blog post altogether! The drama we have had around haircuts is unreal, but this day happened to be the first time EVER in his life that Tech had a haircut he was pleased with, so I was happy, happy! We headed to a department store for some clothes shopping at Tech’s request. All went well. I let him pick out the clothes he liked, filled the buggy, got Minion a thing or 2 and headed to the register. The store associate who was checking us out got to talking about a certain shirt we bought that she thought was cute. Yup, we agreed! She then takes this opportunity to segue way into her grandson having this shirt which somehow opens the door for storytime. Her talk goes on about how her grandson had a friend who was a pain. She says he’s very violent and “is on the spectrum” as she rolls her eyes and says, “or so they say.” Topper was when she added that she’s so glad he’s moved away because he was a “real weirdo.” She adds in a little tidbit about how this boy’s mother doesn’t parent him properly.
Ignorance and Autism
Neither of these encounters was out of ill intent. No one was trying to make my children feel bad, make fun of them, have pity on us, or make any of us feel less than. Truth is, no one even suspected that my children have autism. The thing with autism is, most people are truly ignorant to what it is. This is especially true in the case of Tech. He has Asperger Syndrome and, therefore, is extremely high-functioning. When we share with people the diagnosis, we mostly get, “I had no idea” or “I never would have guessed.” It’s not something that is seen physically in every case. The guide obviously enjoyed helping people, and he had no idea how saying “all kids with autism enjoy the water” is actually a gross generalization. He had no idea Tech wouldn’t go on a boat for years because of his extreme fear of water and how much work we did to get to this point. Had no idea Minion would jump right into deep water without a care in the world that he couldn’t swim. The guides on the bus had no clue that Minion rode the “short bus” and was really proud of riding the bus and was confused by the joke. Cashier lady at the department store had no clue she was complaining to a mother standing in front of her with her 2 kids on the spectrum about the “weirdo” kid who was “on the spectrum.” I don’t hold this against people, because they don’t understand and they’re not trying to hurt. At one time, I was in their shoes. I don’t believe they’re coming from a malicious place.
I don’t spend my time confronting these people, because that would be a daunting task. Instead, I educate through my blog, through my relationships and I teach my kids to be tolerant of others in life and to try to understand their points of view, to not go through life off with a chip on their shoulder. I’ve always moved forward with the mindset that the world will not bend to fit my children and their needs. On the contrary, they need to learn where to bend to fit into the world. There is nothing that they cannot accomplish if they put their mind to it. Autism will not hold them back. We focus on the very positive aspects of it. Tech’s IQ is off the charts. Minion’s ability for puzzles and problem solving is extraordinary. I teach them that autism isn’t something to be ashamed of. Socially, empathy is a challenge for many children with autism. However, while empathy may be a HARD thing for a child on the spectrum to learn, it is ABSOLUTELY a possible skill to develop. Life has taught me that most lessons are best learned by walking through them. Don’t take these moments to have self pity or to wallow, take them to teach your children this is a feeling they never want to subject on others. To feel the pain that others unknowingly inflicted on them, experience their judgment, feel what can come from ignorance and lack of understanding, while it’s an awful feeling, there lies the opportunity to teach.