We worked hard, so very hard, to get my daughter with autism, Lizzie, to talk. We pushed through months and months of speech therapy, behavioral therapy, and occupational therapy without her saying a single recognizable word. We persisted through hours upon hours of jumping together on the trampoline holding hands.
I would say, “One, twoooooo …” and wait for Lizzie to say “three,” but I only heard the rhythmic thumping of our feet on the trampoline. No words came out of her mouth, just silence: frustrating, agonizing silence.
And then one day, she suddenly belted out the most beautiful version of the word “three” I have ever heard. “Teeeeeee” she said. I was ecstatic! My daughter was finally verbal! I thought we were out of the woods and life would go back to normal. I was so naive.
After that, her language progressed beautifully. In the next three to four years, she would learn to easily, and even sometimes politely, express her wants and needs and ask and answer questions. Then it finally happened; she began to share her thoughts.
I had long dreamed of knowing the inner workings of her mind. I already knew there was no one kinder, more loving, and more honest than my daughter. She truly has a beautiful heart and means no harm toward anyone. But, she is a truth teller, and this is where we get into trouble.
We neurotypicals have a different approach to the truth. We filter it through a series of possible scenarios and perceived opinions and then tip-toe around the truth in such a way to make sure no feelings are hurt. But in Lizzie’s world, there is no filter. She says what she means and means what she says. A particularly expressive adult with autism once explained this well when he asked people to stop giving his words meaning that they didn’t have.
Lizzie desperately wants to be involved in whatever conversation is going on around her. She doesn’t always know how to join in, so she grasps at anything familiar that allows her to insert her thoughts.
This is why she was in trouble with her entire history class, consisting of many of the volleyball players and the volleyball coach, as they were discussing the ins and outs of their dismal season. Lizzie was excited because this was a topic of familiarity, so she exclaimed, “Well, the volleyball team hasn’t even won one game this season!”
Needless to say, that did not go over well.
Another time a family friend lost his job, and his daughter was sharing with Lizzie where she would like to go on vacation. Lizzie was quick to inform her, “You can’t go on vacation because your dad has no job, and you have no money.”
In both situations, she only spoke truth and not a single word was meant to hurt anyone’s feelings.
This missing filter works the other way, too. Sometimes when she is trying to understand how the world works, she asks questions that people take the wrong way. When Lizzie volunteered at a soup kitchen downtown for the homeless, she treated every person as an equal regardless of the way they looked. I loved that she didn’t seem to have any preexisting stereotypes as she served the men and women their spaghetti and salad. I marveled at her ability to show love the way we all should.
When she was trying to understand pregnancy, she asked an obese man if he was pregnant, and when she was trying to understand death, she pointed at an old man and adamantly told him that he was going to die soon.
Again, there was no ill intention behind her words. It’s not rude; it’s autism. People are so quick to judge and dismiss. For Lizzie to be accepted for who she is, it’s going to take someone willing to look past her words and see her kind heart. But shouldn’t we all take the time to look past the words spoken and see into the heart of the person behind them? Does one wrong thing said make a horrible person? Does one differing opinion make an enemy? And shouldn’t we, like Lizzie, treat everyone equally with kindness and decency?
Maybe, just maybe, this is what autism can teach the world.
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