May 24, 2011

One of Us

I awaited last weekend's autism walk with great anticipation. It was our first real autism community outing. I hoped I would feel a part of something. I wanted to feel understood without having to explain. But I was also apprehensive, as I always am when going places designated for special needs. I compare Moe to the kids who seem so much more capable, and I worry about his future when I see kids who are severely affected.

But the thing that struck me at this event, as it has before (you'd think I'd learn), is that if it hadn't been for the banners and t-shirts, the event could have been for anyone. As I looked around the crowd, it was impossible to tell who had autism and who did not. As I looked at banners for "Team Evan" or "Walking for Wiley" or "Autism Superstars," I tried to figure out which one was Evan or Wiley. Who is the superstar? And I rarely found him.

There was one notable exception for us. A boy, around 8 or 9 years old, came up to Moe and gave him a big hug. Moe, face buried in the boy's tummy, wasn't quite sure what to do, but neither did he fight it. Did Moe know that the boy was one of his own? Did the boy? I broke it up after a few seconds, afraid Moe might bite this sweet child. But it was a moment I won't soon forget.

From a distance, autism is largely an invisible disability, evident only after interaction, and sometimes even then it can be hard to discern.

This type of disability is tough for society to understand. When a person can't walk, we can provide a wheelchair and ramp. When a person can't see, we can provide braille instructions or allow a guide dog. But when a person has autism, we don't always know that a disability exists, and may mistake behavior for rudeness or worse. And if we were to provide accommodation, what would that be? Autism is such a wide spectrum.

AMC theater provides sensory-friendly films, and Pump it Up occasionally holds autism-friendly nights at their facility. It feels like we need to do more, but the specifics are hard to define. This is why awareness is vital. It will be impossible to provide accommodation for every person with autism. This would be like asking every restaurant to provide every person who entered it their own menu tailored just for them. So we must take it upon ourselves to recognize the signs, and give each person the time and respect she deserves. We will be better off for it, I'm sure.

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