My son, Julian, was diagnosed with autism about six months ago. I wasn’t shocked that he received the diagnosis. Julian is completely nonverbal, walks on his toes, and doesn’t have the best eye contact.
At first, it felt odd telling complete strangers about Julian’s condition. I’ve always known that spreading awareness was important. But it felt different now that it was my baby. I didn’t want to wear a shirt with his diagnosis on it. I didn’t want people to judge him before they even got to know him.
But as time has passed, and new situations have arisen, that feeling has changed. Here’s why:
1. Julian doesn’t ‘look autistic.’ I’ve heard that comment several times during the past few months. I’m guessing that just means he doesn’t look like he has a disability. Julian looks like a typically developing 4 year old. He walks, runs, laughs, and plays.
We live a couple blocks from the beach and Julian loves crawling in the surf with his twin brother, Dominic. Every so often, another child visiting the beach will approach Julian to play. I don’t get involved. I simply watch to see how it all plays out.
Most of the time, he will simply ignore the other child. This makes Julian appear rude and inevitably hurts the child’s feelings. Occasionally, he’ll engage to play. But there’s a couple barriers to overcome… 1. He doesn’t talk. 2. He doesn’t understand what the other kid is saying. This also makes Julian appear rude. I’m not sure if you’re aware, but kids don’t like it when other kids are rude to them. They always run and tell mom.
That’s my cue!
The standard protocol for a mom in this situation is to tell her kid to play nicely, or something to that effect. That’s obviously not going to work Julian’s case. Instead, I go straight to the other mom. I let her know his condition. I’ve found that it eases the tension and promotes a more accepting environment. It even creates a dialogue that wouldn’t have otherwise been started.
2. I used to be ‘that mom.’ Until a couple years ago, if I saw an older child ‘being bad’ or ‘having a tantrum,’ autism probably wouldn’t have crossed my mind. I honestly would’ve thought the child needed to be disciplined. None of my friends had children with autism. I simply wasn’t as aware or as informed as I am now.
So I tell others about Julian’s diagnosis – not for sympathy or attention. I simply want to add a drop of autism into their brain soup. So the next time they see an older kid ‘having a tantrum,’ they might have a different perspective, or view of the situation. Then they might offer a kind smile, instead of a disapproving glare.
3. Julian is getting older. Julian has always ‘visited’ other groups of beach-goers. We live at a quiet neighborhood beach, mostly frequented by locals. He would walk among them while they talked. He might even sit in their chair or play with a toy. Nobody ever minded. They would always dote over how adorable he was. That won’t be the case for long.
As Julian continues to grow at a normal rate, his speech and cognitive development is progressing at the pace of an inch worm. Behaviors that used to be tolerated or seen as ‘cute,’ will quickly become viewed as inappropriate and annoying.
Most people aren’t mean. We simply have societal norms, an unwritten rule book, that everyone is expected to follow. When people like Julian deviate from those norms, they are viewed as rude, intrusive, or unmannerly… Unless people know they have a disability. And how would they know that if I don’t tell them?
Now that I’ve started opening up to complete strangers about Julian’s autism diagnosis, I’ve found that many people are interested in learning more about the condition. Some even have friends or family members on the spectrum. There have even been a few people who have given me advice or tips because, they themselves, have been in my shoes.
What are your thoughts on spreading awareness? Do you talk about your child’s disability to strangers? Have you found it helpful?