The headline to this story isn’t click bait. It isn’t some eye-catching, jaw-dropping, what-the-hell, scratch-your-brain kind of headline. It’s true. I really do mean it when I say that your neurotypical (non autistic) child can stare at my autistic son and here’s why.
Our son Jackson is on the spectrum somewhere. Like all of us (and I do mean all of us), he’s on a bell-shaped curved spectrum of characteristics commonly associated with autism. As our son’s behavioral specialist explained, we all fall somewhere on the spectrum, and in order to decide which people need some sort of support/therapy, the “experts” draw a line down through the curved line somewhere and basically say “Those on this side of the line are considered on the autism spectrum and need support of some kind, those on the other side are not.” The “experts” then broke it down to three levels of support. Basically, level 1 is “requiring support,” level 2 “requiring
substantial support, ” and level 3 “requiring very substantial support.” Side note: As a writer, I know that the word “very” is just a lazy adverb, but I digress.
No two people on the autism spectrum will have the exact same characteristics. Notice I didn’t say symptoms? Autism isn’t a contagious disease and it doesn’t need to be cured. Got it? Okay, good. Just a pet peeve, sorry.
Some people with autism may have several mannerisms that hinder their ability to do or experience certain things in life, and others may only have a handful to work through and you might not even notice how hard they have to work for on those “smaller” things. Jackson is the latter. What matters is that those who need some sort of support, whatever that might be, are receiving what they need so they can have a full life, which is whatever the the phrase “full life” means to that person. For us, it means helping Jackson as much as we can so he can be a compassionate, fully-independent adult, pursuing all his passions in life. That’s the goal. It’s the goal for all three of our children. Jackson just requires more guidance.
Okay, so why do I want kids to stare at my son? Well for starters, a big part of Jackson’s autism is stimming or self-stimulatory behavior. Stimming refers to repetitive behaviors such as hand-flapping, rocking, spinning, words or phrases, etc. For Jackson, stimming is rocking, jumping, bouncing, while humming and looking at the ceiling, and recently he’s starting to repeat words and phrases.
I have to say, his grin when he stims is infectious. He’s a happy stimmer, thankfully. He’s a general all-around happy boy. I know, that’s unheard of, a happy, autistic child!? Gasp I hope you can feel how thick the sarcasm is there … like peanut butter.
Stimming is what stands out the most about Jackson, followed by his social skills, to neurotypical children and people. I remember once when Jackson was gawked at for his stimming, at the local Dollar General toward the end of winter. We all had unrelenting colds and I was on a mission to find some cold medicine with clout. Jackson was in the back part of the shopping cart as our youngest was in the front. As I paced the small selection of cold medicines, trying to find something quickly as I had to pick up our oldest from karate class soon, a man walked slowly by the cold/flu aisle several times with a unsure look on his face. He watched Jackson hum and attempt to bounce in the shopping cart. My son is not quiet when he hums so I know those nearby in the store could hear him. The first time he walked by, he had a confused look on his face. Okay, no biggie. Second time he walked by, I moved our cart in case he needed something from that aisle. Nope. Third time … alright buddy, that’s plenty. At first, I wanted to tell the man “Hey, he’s autistic! Now you know!” or “Take a picture, it lasts longer jerk!”
But I didn’t. I wanted to but I decided it was not worth my energy. As a special needs mom, you learn to reserve some of your energy for things that matter, like actual meltdowns about the fact that you picked up chicken tenders and not chicken nuggets (and your kid only eats circle nuggets) or sibling quarrels. As I left the store with my kids and medicine in tow, I started to think about those who are completely uneducated about things like autism and how uneducated we were a year ago. We were in the “is he or isn’t he?” stage for more than six months, waiting for the appointment that would change all our lives for better. And we thought, “He doesn’t act like or do any of the thing so and so does. Maybe he’s not autistic but just has a small development disorder.” Oh my, did we have so much to learn.
If people are uneducated, that means their children are as well, unless they are around special needs kids of any kind. Ever since that day, I have tried my hardest to be polite with the somewhat rude questions/looks from adults. I said try, I’m not a saint. This still and will always bother some days. But when questions and stares come from children, I am much more open to sharing what Jackson’s autism means. Why? Well, because they are the future for one. They are the same kids who will be working alongside people like Jackson. I haven’t given up on adults, things are just more complex. Explaining autism to a child is actually fairly simple … once you stop over thinking.
When kids question Jackson’s behavior, I tell them that he wants to be social and play just like any other kid. They may need to repeat themselves when talking to him and sometimes he just needs to jump or hum because he gets excited. I usually suggest a game he knows, like tag. I do have to explain that he doesn’t always understand personal space and that if he hugs, sits or stands too close to someone to just ask him nicely to scoot over a little. Breaking down his autism to the very basics has been so well-received by children who know him or those who meet him for the first time, it gives me such hope for the future of special needs acceptance.
When kids look or point it’s because they are curious and rightfully so. When they see something new, they question … and it’s pure. It’s genuine interest because it’s different. There is no ill intent behind it. They want to learn and I am all about expanding minds and hearts to all walks of life. Now, sometimes it can come off harsh when a kid asks about him because he or she is frustrated with Jackson because they want to control the situation. Like most people, am I right? Jackson doesn’t always go with the flow or understand the “rules” of the game. But I have no problem sharing about Jackson’s autism with them and opening their minds because I have almost made it a personal mission of mine to squash one particular question “Well, he doesn’t look autistic?”
Exactly. Autism doesn’t have a look. It’s just a neurological difference.
So parents, those with neurotypical kids, feel free to stare, point and ask me or our oldest Hayden why Jackson is the way he is, we will gladly tell you.
I know we can’t reach every single person to educate and open their hearts up to autism and other special needs but I can start with my children, their classmates and our neighbors. I can start somewhere. And like I said, some days, it hurts to hear people question his difference, doubt his intelligence and just his over all abilities as a person. I try to remember how I was before this journey started for us and that motivates me to educate people. God put us on this journey for a reason, and I thank God every day that he gave us Jackson.
We can’t open everyone’s mind to autism, but we can help plant the seed of acceptance and watch it grow.
And that’s enough.