It usually starts with a look. Sometimes it’s a look at my daughter. Sometimes at me. Sometimes at another parent nearby, or another child. Who gets the first look is irrelevant, really, because the look is always the same, regardless of who is on the receiving end of it. It’s the look of judgment that comes from seeing a child with autism behaving autistically, and deciding the child is “a little off,” “weird,” or “bad.” It happens constantly, and it can happen anywhere.
One morning while our family was vacationing in Los Angeles, my then-five-year-old daughter and I went on a beach date—just the two of us. She adores the ocean, so after stopping by a local coffee shop, we went out early to watch the sun rise and avoid the crowds. Because we are on The Spectrum, both of us having what is generally referred to as a “high-functioning” form of autism called Asperger’s Syndrome, avoiding crowds is important for us. With crowds comes an increased risk of overstimulation, anxiety, and meltdowns, so we tend to be proactive and avoid them whenever possible. Going to public places at the crack of dawn is one of the (many, many) life hacks we’ve instinctively learned to make when navigating our way through a society that wasn’t exactly designed to accommodate people like us.
As hard as we try, though, the reality is that any time you step out into the public realm, interacting with people is hard to avoid altogether. And while dodging crowded spaces is usually doable, avoiding individuals who pass some form of judgment when they witness typical autistic behavior is almost impossible. We were reminded of this about 15 minutes after arriving at the beach for our date.
It should never take me telling someone that my daughter is autistic for them to stop staring at or speaking to her with judgmental condescension.
That morning, the first look came from a mom who was walking with her two pre-teen sons. It came when my then-five-year-old daughter was happily running back and forth between the edge of the ocean’s wake and the spot on the sand where I was sitting; when she was flapping her arms with delight between sporadic twirls and jumps and cartwheel attempts—moving through the world in a way that makes complete sense to her, but may not make sense to whoever is watching.
“What is she…doing?” one of the boys loudly asked his mom, pointing at my daughter.
“I don’t know,” she replied, shooting The Look of judgment my way before asking, “Is she…okay? What’s going on?”
“She’s playing,” I said.
“But is she…okay? Why is she making those…noises? And her hands are like…claws…”
“She’s autistic,” I blurted, attempting to end the probing inquiry as soon as possible.
“Ohhh, I see,” she replied uncomfortably.
Having figured my daughter out to her liking, she then turned back to her son who had made the initial inquiry regarding my daughter’s behavior, whispering something I couldn’t make out as they continued with their walk down the coast.
This need to “figure out what other people’s deal is” based on a single moment or interaction is an unfortunate standard in our society; one that adds a considerable amount of stress to lots of people’s lives—stress that is both unnecessary and avoidable. Certain individuals move through the world believing that they are entitled to an explanation for why someone is the way they are; that they are owed a reason they deem as “valid” for why another person acts a certain way, talks a certain way, or lives a certain way.
It’s a far-too-frequent occurrence that impacts many different groups. For us, it was being asked to justify autistic behavior that seemed “weird.” For a parent of a child with ADHD, it could be being asked to explain your child’s “bad behavior” to a stranger while the child is struggling to regulate their emotions. For a person who has privately experienced fertility challenges, or had one or more miscarriages, it could be being asked to explain why they had to “just leave” a baby shower before the event was over. For a Black girl, it could be asking to explain why she’s “so upset” and “making such a big deal” out of her hair being touched by a white child who is “just curious.”
If you were to attempt to write down each individual situation like this, it would rival the length of Santa’s Naughty/Nice List in The Santa Clause’s foyer-full-of-boxes form or a single printed receipt from CVS Pharmacy— absolutely massive.
It can feel overwhelming at times, knowing that there are so many different sets of circumstances out there; trying to figure out how to be sensitive to them all. But the easiest go-to solution doesn’t come from us knowing everyone’s personal stories. That would be impossible. It doesn’t come from each of us having an in-depth working knowledge of every type of disorder or disability that a human can experience. That would require an ungodly amount of work that most of us simply don’t have the time or the bandwidth to do.
Would it have been badass if that mom on the beach knew that the “weird” behavior my daughter was engaging in was something called stimming, and that it’s an incredibly common behavior for people with autism to exhibit? Totally.
Would it have been even better if she used her working, in-depth knowledge of Autism Spectrum Disorder to educate her justifiably-curious son in a way that painted people with ASD as fully-valid human beings whose brains are just wired a bit differently? Yes.
Would it have been amazing if she had done all of this subtly and tactfully, without interrupting my daughter and I on our beach date, turning it into a teachable moment without requesting that we give up part of our morning to become the teachers of our own disability? Yeahhhh, y’all. It would have been cool as hell.
It’s always nice when you feel seen and understood, and increasing our understanding of lived experiences that differ from our own is work we should all be partaking in as often as possible. But was it necessary for all of this to happen for the interaction to be a positive one? No. Not at all. The bare-bones necessary in that particular moment that the mom failed to implement was to simply act with some genuine empathy and kindness.
It should never take me telling someone that my daughter is autistic for them to stop staring at or speaking to her with judgmental condescension. If I have to tell a stranger that my daughter is autistic for them to be kind, quite frankly, the person I’m telling has already fucked up. Royally. My daughter, like all human beings, is worthy of basic kindness, even if she seems “weird” or “different.” Being “weird” or “different” or “not making sense” does not make a person an open target for jeers, jokes, or judgmental jargon.
One of the most game-changing shifts that we can unitedly make when moving throughout the world and interacting with one another is to make kindness and empathy the default energy we put out into it. To move away from trying to “figure everyone out” to our liking and casting judgement upon others when we “just don’t get” whatever it is we’re seeing. To change from an “I just don’t understand” mindset to a “There may be something going on that I’m not seeing” one.
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