I'm in the waiting room at my son's special education autism centre. A teenager walks in, followed by his dad. The boy makes straight for me and, with a big grin on his face, says he wants to drink the can of coke that's on the table next to me. I'm embarrassed, I want to tell him that it's not coke, it's got pencils shavings in it, but I don't know how to say that in Turkish. So I just tell him that it's empty. That it's rubbish. His dad comes up and provides me with few key words. He shows him the rubbish bin. It's like that, he says. The dad looks quite relieved that he doesn't have to wrestle my coke from his boy. The boy, still smiling, then asks me if I can give him a cup of tea instead. He's thirsty. He doesn't want to wait and I'm clearly a drinks person. I say he can get tea in the kitchen upstairs. His dad confirms, and they both go up.
This boy had a pleasant, open face. He spoke fluently, if not well.Yet, I'm ashamed to say, when he first walked towards me, my first instinct was to shrink from him, retreat into my headphones. What's worse, a few years ago, before I knew anything about autism, if I met someone like him in the streets, I would have been scared. I would not have tried to explain to him, in my broken Turkish, that no, I did not have a cup of tea in my handbag, that no, he probably wouldn't find one in the bin either. I would have been offended, and weirded out that his dad had not come to my rescue, that he had let his son finish the exchange with me, on his own terms.
My son is like this boy in many ways. He approaches people, mostly young women and little girls, and flirts with them outrageously. Sometimes he's a bit in their face, like that time he thought to impress a girl by blowing a bubble from a gum at her, but hadn't gotten around to learning how to make bubbles. He basically stuck his tongue with the gum at the end of it within inches of her face... Now he's cute and he's still quite small, so people forgive him. But that's clearly not going to last. In a few years' time, he'll be a teenager, then a man. No doubt by then he'll have picked up more social skills. But this is a real worry. Will he be seen as a nuisance, or a threat? And as the youth and cuteness disappear, will people just stop cutting him slack for his weirdness? Will he one day, no longer charm people, but freak them out instead?
There's not much I can do to assuage these worries, except, of course, by making sure he gets as much help as possible now, so that can learn to emulate the social interactions of neuro-typicals. Not much I can do except write, so that as many people as possible get to know about Max, and about children and adults like him. Blogging is a wonderful thing. It reaches out to people in an intimate way. If you read something on a blog, you take it seriously, even if you disagree, you give it your thought and your sympathy, or your laughter. You share it.
So although I don't want to come over all preachy, I'd like to carry on talking about what it's like to live with autism, what kind of progress you can expect, what the best and worst times are like. Just so you know, when you come across someone like Max. Check here again soon for another portrait of autism.
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