A few days ago, I had an interesting encounter when I stopped to get take-out sandwiches for dinner. While I was waiting in a booth until the order was ready, I noticed that residents of our local group home for disabled adults were enjoying dinner with their caretakers. I have always been impressed when I have seen the caretakers and residents out in the community because the residents always seem to be having a good time, and their caretakers treat them with kindness and respect. As I was sitting there, one of the caretakers brought a young woman by the hand past my booth. When the young woman saw me, she stopped and smiled, and I smiled back at her. Then she began to pat me on the shoulder gently, so I said hello to her. Her caretaker had a look of embarrassment, apologized to me, and tried to lead her away. I assured them that she was fine as she continued to pat my shoulder, and I explained to the caretaker that I understood because I have a son with autism. The caretaker seemed relieved that I was not being bothered or made uncomfortable, and she told me the woman’s name. When I said her name, she began to make cooing noises, apparently unable to speak, but conveying joy in her eyes, smile, and voice. Then her caretaker told her to shake my hand, which she did, and as she was leaving, we waved goodbye to one another. Despite her inability to speak, we were able to communicate with each other, and I hope that she sensed that I was pleased that she wanted to reach out to me.
Before Alex was diagnosed with autism, I don’t think I would have been as comfortable being around people with disabilities. While I always admired those who chose to work in special education, I didn’t feel that I had the patience or the understanding needed to help students with disabilities overcome the obstacles they faced. After living with Alex and his idiosyncrasies all these years, I have developed a comfort level and a compassion for people with special needs. Through Alex I have learned to see past the differences special needs bring and to search for ways to communicate on a level we both understand. The reward of being able to interact helps me overcome any sense of awkwardness or inadequacy on my part. Despite my natural shyness, I hope that I convey a sense of openness so that people like the young woman in Culver’s feel comfortable in approaching me. One of the students at my school who has autism eagerly engages me anytime he sees me in the halls. Even though he has never been in my classes, he treats me as an old friend, running over to talk to me. Typical of autism, he stands too close, talks too loudly, and never looks at me, but he seems to sense that I am as pleased to see him as he is to see me. One day while I was shopping at Walmart, he came running up to say hello, apparently excited to see me in a setting other than school. His mother seemed embarrassed by his assertive behavior, but I reassured her that he was fine, and I hoped that she knew I understood his behavior and her concerns, as well.
Raising Alex has helped me to develop empathy; those who have not had a family member with special needs, yet interact with ease and compassion, always impress me. In an earlier blog “Support,” I described how blessed I am to have friends who take a great deal of interest in Alex and show kindness to him through various gestures. Recently, I was once again reminded how fortunate I am to have these friends because they express their caring for Alex in ways that show they understand, even though they haven’t experienced life with a special needs child directly. For instance, my friend Crock, who asks about Alex regularly and always reaches out to him by asking me to tell Alex he said hi, brought me a pedometer to give Alex this week. He knows that Alex loves numbers and devices that calculate, so this was a perfect present, and once again he demonstrated how much he understands our situation. Similarly, my friend Danne, who has been seeing the same chiropractic internist Alex has, brought me a gift bag of healing with Epsom salts and baking soda for his baths, as recommended by the chiropractor, along with a pure facial cleanser for his face, which has been breaking out lately. As if this kind gesture for my son weren’t enough, she included a beautiful inspirational card to remind me she cares. Yet another reminder of concern for Alex came from my friend Jody, whose husband, like Alex, is a NASCAR fan. Last summer, after they went to the NASCAR Brickyard 400 race, she gave Alex her lanyard with the Brickyard 400 logo and the ticket with a diagram of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Since then, Alex has worn or carried around this lanyard, at times only taking it off to sleep, but making certain it was beside his bed so that he could put it on when he awoke. During his recent moodiness, one thing that would make him smile was looking at the lanyard, and I know that would make Jody smile, as well. Last weekend, her husband went to the Chicagoland Raceway, where he learned to drive a NASCAR car, and Jody asked him to keep an eye out for something to bring Alex. She told me that he called her from the track to tell her there really wasn’t anything for Alex, except that he could bring him back a real NASCAR race car tire. Knowing that I wouldn’t be thrilled for Alex to sleep with a tire, Jody wisely told him that probably wasn’t a good idea. Nonetheless, I was touched that both of them were thinking of Alex and trying to find something for him. To learn true understanding I had to raise a child with autism; therefore, when I find compassion from others who understand Alex without having raised a special needs child, I realize how blessed we are to have them in our lives.
“Light shines in the darkness for the godly. They are generous, compassionate, and righteous.” Psalm 112:4