*I struggled with the title of this post because no matter what I come up with, it won’t reflect the true topic I want to relate.
When people talk about those with Autism or such disabilities, they almost always talk about the negatives. The very word disability brings to mind negative, difficult but it never shows that there are positive attributes to not being normal.
As children, we learn about the world from family and experience. The lessons from those early years teach us how to interact with others. Subtle cues tell us who are friends and who are enemies. What happens when you can’t pick up on those subtle cues?
I grew up in rural Washington, first the west and then the east. The weather varied greatly from one side to the other but the lack of diversity didn’t. I attended all white schools – most students were middle to lower class. I don’t remember knowing anyone who was disabled or all that different but that wasn’t something I thought about back then. Home was a different story all together. My favorite uncle was black. I have a cousin with down syndrome. My parents forced foreign films on us (and opera). We ate in ethnic restaurants. That was life.
I remember once my teacher was making some sort of social comment and said you wouldn’t see a black man in our community. I argued with the teacher – there was a black man staying in my house at that time. I can’t even remember what the point was but I remember that it bothered me. I didn’t know why it was important.
Before I go any further, let me explain something else to you. I have a real hard time with faces and details. I can’t remember a name to save my life most of the time. My brain files differently. I don’t know why some people stay in my brain and others I can see every day and still not recognize them or understand why I know them. So when it comes to meeting people what I notice about them is not always what everyone else notices.
For example, I was visiting a friend in Seattle. I was wandering on my own and met someone who knew my friend. When I saw her again, I told her that this guy wanted me to tell her ‘hi’ or something just as mundane. By this time, I could no longer remember his name so I attempted to describe him. He worked in a specific place (which I have now forgotten) so that seemed to me to be enough information but it wasn’t. So I gave his hair color and what I thought was his eye color. After several minutes she exclaims – ‘was it so and so’. That name was familiar. Then she said – if you had only said he had one arm, I would have known who you were talking about. Strangely, that piece of information didn’t seem that important to me. I think I knew he only had one arm but that wasn’t enough for me to use that as an identifier.
In some ways, I wonder if my blinders are a sort of fear. If I point out what makes them different, will people do the same to me? I’m not exactly the same as everyone else.
But back to my original thoughts which I’m sure you are still wondering what they are.
When I got older, I had the opportunity to live in San Diego. This was an eye-opening experience for me. For the first time, I was surrounded by different people. People from all walks of life, all colors. It was wonderful but it left me feeling weird. Not because it was different but because people accused me of being different than I was. For the first time, I was accused of being racist. It would have never occurred to me to be racist and I couldn’t even begin to understand what I said or did to bring this about. I do have back track slightly – this would have been my third year of college so my first two years I had friends of all walks of life. I had dated someone who was black and a native american. Neither of those traits meant anything to me. I had gay friends and straight friends, academics and artists. I just wasn’t particular – if I liked you then I liked you.
So to go to San Diego and be accused of being racist was a shock. I didn’t know why. I still don’t but I think it had more to do with the identity of the accuser than the accused. We were all young and going through those growing pains. I still believe that the young man (who accused a lot of people of being racist) was struggling with his own place in the world.
To add to that confusion, I was later accused of trying to be black. I thought I was trying to be human. That particular comment came while I was at a festival for Martin Luther King, jr. I love festivals and was just enjoying the heck out of that one. I stopped at every booth and talked with anyone who stopped to talk to me. I even got to meet a Jamaican Bobsledder and got his phone number because he was just that cool. I never called him though – should have because he was just nice. It wasn’t a romantic moment, just a connection between two people who just happen to think that the Jamaican Bobsled team should have one the gold their first year.
Then came my son. I was still in college at that time. We were surrounded by a thick assortment of culture and I was still bathing in it. I just don’t think there is enough time to experience everything but I sure want to try. We went to African celebrations and out for Chinese food. We had friends who were of different races and they were awesome people. We’ve known gay people and straight people. Wonderful people who just are the same as us.
And I think about my son who is a lot like his mother. He just picks up on the weirdest details. I remember one time we were at McDonald’s. X was about 4 and playing in the ball pit with a couple of kids. It was time for us to go and, as I was trying to get him to get his shoes on, a little girl came out and ran to her mother. She had only one arm and was telling her mother how those mean boys were making fun of her by tucking their arms into their shirts. I was shocked – my son did this. As we were heading out the door, I asked him about it. He looked up at me with these big blue eyes, ‘but mom we were just trying to be fair, she didn’t have an arm so I was just trying to be like her.’ I’ve always regretted not going back and explaining to that mom and daughter. Sometimes the world is not the mean place people think it is and would she have felt differently if she had known that my son had Autism. That he was a lot like her – different.
This is one of the beautiful things about not being neuro-typical – the details are just so different. Sometimes I think that the world be a better place if more people could see the world the way I do. If they could stop and notice the small bits of the bigger picture. Yes, we need to see the big picture but it means nothing if you can’t enjoy the details that make it up. What’s the point of the woods if you can’t see the tiny purple mushroom or hear the chatter of a chipmunk? How can you judge he merit of a man if you can’t see past the outside? How do you expect the world to see you?