August 4, 2010
Can You Hear Me Now?
“No Justin, we have to share” I implore my oldest son, who has become captivated by a plastic stove whose coils light up on command, a kitchen appliance a young girl is currently playing with and loathe to relinquish. I quickly close the space between us and gently remove my son’s hand, and he acquiesces, turning his attention to a large truck which not only sports giant wheels to spin, but has the added bonus of expressing an exceptionally fun sound when he presses on the top of the cab. This is the first conflict we’ve had in our ten minute sojourn in the ear, nose and throat specialist’s waiting room, and since it’s packed, I’m grateful it has gone this well. Hell, after our last visit to the shrink, I’m just grateful there IS a waiting room. Sadly, it doesn’t take much to make me happy these days.
In my haste to avert Armegeddon I’ve knocked my purse to the floor, and I quickly replace it to its appointed chair, then turn around to see what Justin’s up to now. I see he has situated himself on the floor near two other girls, truck in hand, blithely ignoring both of them. I notice that one of the children is repeatedly saying “hi” to him with a quizzical look on her face, and I quickly summon my best Olympic sprint over to where they’re sitting to explain to her that Justin’s not being rude, he just can’t talk. In my pre-child days I was fond of saying I could tolerate any kind of child as long as I didn’t raise a snob or a brat, and I feel I owe this clearly sweet girl an explanation. I won’t be party to her first male rejection.
I reach my destination, crouch down to the floor and say “hi, my name is Kim, this is Justin. He’s not ignoring you, he just has autism and can’t talk”. Inwardly I’m thinking, ‘sure, it’s JUST autism, no big deal honey’, but truly it would be inappropriate to burden this child with all the disorder’s fun manifestations. After all, she looks to be about six years old, and is enthralled with a semi-clad Barbie she’s waving around a bit dangerously. I remind myself she doesn’t require all the details, she just needs to know in this instance it really isn’t her, it’s him.
“Why can’t he talk?” she replies. Oh sweetheart, if I could answer that question, I could buy you every Barbie in town AND the dream house. Then you would never need Ken.
Instead, I respond “Sometimes children with autism can’t talk. He has a computer that speaks for him.”
She looks at me skeptically to see if I’m putting her on, then asks, “do you always know what he wants?”, and I think to myself, well THAT’S a loaded question, but I maturely reply “yes, I usually do”. The miracle is, that’s actually the truth.
She lays Barbie carefully in her lap, looks at me again and says “he really uses a computer and he never has to talk?” I assure her she understood me correctly. I can literally see the wheels turning in her brain as she contemplates this information. A few seconds later she turns her face up to me, smiles and says “If I had me one of those I wouldn’t have to talk all day either. That’s cool. He’s cool”, and she smiles and turns back to her companion. I remind myself I’m in a waiting room of parents, and I should resist the urge to hug her. I almost lose the battle.
The best part of this experience is I’m not surprised by her reaction, happy, but not surprised. This is the attitude most of my students had in regards to children with disabilities when I taught in Virginia, and her response was commensurate with most of the conversations I have here in Jersey with children who are curious about Justin and his silence. Acceptance of him has become the status quo. I silently thank the generations before me who worked so diligently to create this bridge of understanding, and the teachers and parents of my own who continue to foster it. It is a beautiful thing to behold. Today, not only did my son try a lollypop for the first time as he made his exit, he had the good fortune to be dubbed “cool” by a peer.
Don’t get me wrong. Things aren’t perfect for him, or for our family, by any means. But these little moments, these brief but profound connections, help immeasurably. And for once, as I leave a doctor’s office, I am satisfied.