A couple months ago I walked to a nearby park with my kids. As we approached there was a girl (probably close to my sons age) swinging while her mom watched. My children all ran up to the swings. There weren't enough seats so it was clear that they would have to take turns. My youngest daughter ran off to find something else to play with. My son stuck around the swing set to watch. The girl started talking loudly to my kids and repeating the same thing over and over. Her mom convinced her to swing a couple more minutes and then let one of my kids have a turn. After a few minutes the girl was trying to negotiate for more time on the swings. Eventually she was able to get her girl off the swings and my son started swinging. He had patiently waited and watched the girls contest to see who could go higher. Almost as soon as he got on the girl started telling him his time was over and it was her time again. Her mom intervened and told her that she would need to wait a bit longer for another turn. The girl had fixated on the swings and wasn't happy about this. After a few minutes my son chose to get off and let the girl have her swing back. My youngest had come over and wanted a turn so my oldest sat her on her lap and did some swinging with her.
During these events the mom apologized to me for her daughter and told me she had autism, which I had already suspected before she mentioned it, since I have friends with autistic children. We talked for awhile about the challenges she had raising her to learn boundaries, consideration and respect for others. The mother isn't able to work because her daughter needs full time care and her husband couldn't handle the situation and left them. Many of us are uncomfortable with people who are different then us, though we don't want to admit it. We label them as difficult because they don't act, speak or respond the way we want them too. In situations like this we see the character of the person interacting with the different person. While conversing with this women about her difficulties I watched my children speak kindly to her and try to include the little girl in other play activities. I was thankful the kids had taken to heart the times I'd instructed them in kindness, compassion and respect. (While we were walking home the kids said to me they knew the girl was different and felt sad about her struggles.)
The mom thanked me for being understanding and expressed relief that my kids weren't being mean or frustrating to her daughter. Many people have judged and criticized her and her little girl. It is hard enough teaching my three children the lessons I want them to learn; I can't imagine the daily struggle of attempting to teaching a child with impaired cognitive function the same lessons! I have watched friends agonize over situations where they are unsure if they should let the battle go or push a little harder, hoping for even a small amount of growth in an area or situation. It's a delicate balance between responding to your child where he's at and also trying to lead them out of their comfort zone. Over time progress can be made, but sometimes pushing a little bit can lead to meltdowns and the parents second guessing themselves. Life with an autistic child is exhausting both mentally, physically and spiritually! This woman was honest about her struggles. I was sad at the number of times she apologized for her daughter. I'm sad she feels she constantly has to share her daughters autism in order to explain her odd or inappropriate behavior. I sensed her embarrassment, frustration and sadness at how often it interferes with the normal life she wants for her daughter. I was glad that for a short moment of time, both she and her daughter experienced being treated like normal by those around them. The mother said she couldn't remember the last time children and adults just accepted them and treated them the same way they usually do others. I almost cried when she shared that with me. I wish people were more comfortable reaching out to those who struggle with disabilities. Many people think it will be challenging and uncomfortable - and it often is - but It is often a rewarding experience too!
If you know someone with autism I would encourage you to ask their parents to explain what it's like for them and then ask them how you can help. Most people with autistic kids don't get a break and so they live with a high level of stress, always waiting for the next crisis. Most parents feel alone. Having someone willing to support and encourage them can re-energize them and lessen the stress. If you have any experiences or tips to share, please feel free to post them in the comments.