It was the Sunday afternoon marking the end of Christmas break, and it was beautiful outside. I suggested to Kenny that we burn off some of his ample energy by taking a walk on the greenway near our house.
Having just spent the preceding week bonding with my children, I was tired and distracted, and I didn’t notice right away that Kenny had his “toy” with him. Kenny’s toy is a three-sided plastic thing that was a brace for a car ramp the boys played with when they were little. Kenny likes to spin it around his finger. He also likes to tie things to it, so in addition to the toy, he was carrying a long piece of string and a hanger. Sometimes he connects them all and spins his contraption like a propeller with a 2- to 3-foot radius.
Usually, I don’t let him take his toy with him when we go out because he gets so focused on spinning that he doesn’t pay attention to what’s happening around him. But on this day, I didn’t feel like making him go inside and put it away, so off we went.
Try to imagine this 14-year-old boy, walking along the greenway in Cary, spinning his toy, carrying a hanger under his arm, occasionally jiggling a piece of bright pink string in front of his eyes. (It’s a sensory thing; Kenny has always sought out visual stimulation.)
Lots of families were out walking that day. The children we encountered were absolutely bewildered by Kenny. They stared, with a look on their faces that said, “What the heck?” Their parents caught themselves staring for a moment, then looked away and avoided my gaze. Usually when we walk the greenway, most people say hi or smile as they pass. Not today.
Maybe I should have been insulted, but honestly, their reactions didn’t bother me. It’s hard not to stare when someone is being as unabashedly weird as Kenny.
I tell my two sons, who both have autism, that they are weird all the time. Weird, crazy, nuts – these are not taboo words in our house. For Kenny and Theo, they are words of endearment from a mother who adores them but is often baffled by their behaviors and choices.
My sons don’t notice when people look at them strangely, and even if they did I don’t think they would care – why should the opinions of strangers matter to them? So I decided years ago that I wouldn’t let those opinions bother me either.
I don’t concern myself with other people’s reactions when Theo looks at himself in the security monitor above the checkout lane in BJ’s and starts to re-enact some scene from “Sesame Street,” which usually looks like a very odd little dance. And I ignore the children who whisper to each other and snicker when he walks around a store or a park talking to himself.
I’ve been fortunate that only once has someone said something that required a response. I know that’s an experience many moms with autistic children have much more often. (Perhaps in my case it’s one fringe benefit of being a black woman.)
And because my sons don’t care about other people’s reactions, I don’t feel the need to protect or defend them. Again, that’s not so for many families living with autism.
April is National Autism Awareness Month. But it’s hard to believe there are many people left in America who aren’t aware of autism – numbers from the Centers of Disease Control released at the end of March say the prevalence rate of autism in children is now 1 in 68.
Maybe it’s time to move past “awareness” to “acceptance.” Wouldn’t it be great if those parents who passed Kenny and me on the greenway made a point of saying hello to us, and then took a moment to talk to their children about what they just saw and their reactions? Maybe they could explain to their kids that not everyone’s brain works the same, and that while someone’s behavior may surprise or bewilder you, it’s important to be respectful and kind.
It’s all right to react to someone behaving oddly. That’s human nature, and it’s not worth getting offended about. But instead of turning away, give a smile and a hello to the parent of a weird kid. Odds are she’s feeling self-conscious and wondering what you’re thinking, so a friendly face might ease her anxiety.
Because a smile is the universal sign of acceptance.