Today at church, a little boy who was new was staring at my son. Soren was sitting on the floor and sucking his thumb, somewhat out of the ordinary behavior for a 6-year-old. The look on the new kid’s face held a little curiosity, a little uncertainty, and a lot of fear. The kids at church who have been around my son the last several years do not flinch when he lets an unexpected squeal rip from his vocal cords. They are used to him running around flapping his arms, and they have accepted the fact that he doesn’t talk much. To them, he is just Soren, a kid in their class at church. This little boy, who had never met Soren, wasn’t sure how to react to him, so he just stared at him with that look on his face.
I noticed that look right away.
It is a look I see very often from other kids at the park, the grocery store, or at my other kids’ school. They do not quite know what to make of Soren. Why is he acting that way? How old is he? (This is a common question, like people are trying to reconcile the fact he isn’t talking much yet with his age.) What is wrong with him? Sometimes these questions are voiced, and sometimes they are just written across the expression on their faces.
When I was growing up, if there was a “handicapped” child—the term we used at the time—we were told with discomfort not to stare and were escorted away from the child. There was this stigma that curiosity and questions surrounding the disability were rude.
As a mother of a child with autism and developmental delays, I actually find it comforting when people trade their curious stares for polite, probing questions.
It shows that, as uncertain as they may be about the correct wording or appropriate way of asking about my child, they are willing to try. And I love it. I would rather someone stumble through the words and almost say something inadvertently offensive than to say nothing at all.
When Soren was first diagnosed, the world of disability was completely new to us. As his parents, we didn’t know about the resources available to us, the challenges we would face, or the proper language to use. As we got more involved in parent playgroups and support groups, I found myself absorbing the language the more seasoned parents used. A common question I was asked, and still am, is, “What’s his diagnosis?” This seems to be a polite way of asking about the child, and a way of communicating to the other parent that you are empathetic and interested in their story. A way of letting them know you see their struggle and they are not alone.
Today at church, I got down and looked the little boy in the eyes.
“He has autism. Have you ever heard of that?” I asked. The boy shook his head.
“It means he cannot talk very much yet and he plays a little bit differently than other kids. But he loves high fives and playing tag. Here, Soren, want a high five?” I pulled him over.
The boy’s uncertainty slowly melted into a smile, and he gave my son a high five, all fear suddenly erased from his face. “But how old is he? Why is he still sucking his thumb?”
“He’s six,” I answered. “And I sucked mine until I was at least seven.”
A little girl standing within earshot spoke up, “My brother is 10 and still sucks his!” We all had a good giggle over that.
Children’s questions may be perceived by some as rude, but they just don’t have a filter for their curiosity. Maybe it is the many years I have put in as a teacher, but I love getting down at eye level with kids and helping them better relate to Soren. Their questions open the door for the invitation to learn my son’s own special language. What a lonely existence my son would have if children kept their distance.