We were in the waiting area at the doctor’s office. Ben needed a check-up before the doctor could sign the liability release form, which was required by the special horse-back riding center Ben and Alex are going to visit with their classmates. While I’m rather doubtful that they’ll get either Alex or Ben on a horse…it’s important that the boys go. It’s important that they try.
So, we were waiting. A young man in a wheelchair who also had visible disabilities of the cognitive/developmental variety was also waiting. Ben squirmed past him to scooch as close to the fish tanks as possible. The young man smiled and laughed, gesturing at a fish in the tank. Ben peered closely at another fish. They shared the same space and the same interest and they were both fine with that.
Another little boy also occupied the waiting room. He seemed quite normal: talkative, inquisitive, and sociable. I watched Ben (while also giving him room to explore) from my place on the other side of the room to ensure he didn’t become a threat to the young man. I overheard, from the other side of the room, the little boy’s mother answer a question in a not-quiet-enough voice, saying, “Well, there’s probably something wrong with his brain.” I cringed. The young man’s mother didn’t even flinch. Maybe she didn’t hear. Maybe she was so absorbed with her son that she didn’t listen. Maybe she was so used to it she’d learned not to react. Before I could come up with a response, Ben was off and so was I.
Later, after the young man had gone in to his appointment, the little boy came up to Ben and started talking to him. While Ben will speak on occasion, he does not engage in these random social exchanges yet. I told the little boy that Ben doesn’t talk much. The little boy was rather disappointed. He seemed to want someone to engage him—like entertainment, but with people. And the little boy compared Ben to “the big one.”
I suppose there are worse things he could have called the young man, but I couldn’t help but cringe again. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but it seemed a very inhuman way to refer to another person.
“The big one.” Not “the big guy” or “the older boy” or even “the boy in the wheelchair.” The little boy called the young man “the big one.” So impersonal, so dehumanizing, so much like a thing instead of a person.
However busy Ben was being, I felt like this was a moment I couldn’t pass up. So, I agreed that Ben was a lot like the young man—neither of them talked much, but they both had their own interests and they liked to play. I told him Ben was autistic and that meant that he was still learning to talk. I also prompted Ben to say, “Please let me go,” which is one of the phrases we’ve been working on and one I knew Ben would be motivated to say, since I pulled him away from the spinning circles he had racing each other for the few seconds it took to give him the prompt, have him speak, and then let him go.
Ben continued to play. The little boy continued to ask questions. I answered, building the concept of respecting people with differences slowly and subtly into our conversation. Neither the little boy nor his mother seemed to understand what I was doing; they weren’t “against” it, but the idea of making “others” seem familiar and likable seemed foreign to them.
Behind me a mother sat with a boy who was too old to play with the preschool toys, but not quite as old as the young man. This mother engaged in our little exchange, adding her own comments and observations to reinforce the subtle message I was trying to share with the little boy. Her son didn’t participate directly, but his smiles and facial expressions seemed to indicate that he “got” it.
Then, the little boy was called to his appointment and the moment was over. I don’t know if my efforts did any lasting good. But I hope so. For a moment, someone who was different was a person in this little boy’s eyes. Ben didn’t talk, but he played and singed and liked things the little boy could understand. All the while Ben played on, seemingly unaware. Perhaps it’s a coincidence that Ben flashed a smile for the other mom sitting in the background. But maybe not. Ben doesn’t speak much, but he understands a lot more than most people give him credit for (and I suspect the young man does, too). So, perhaps I taught my son a little about self-advocacy while reaching out to a little boy who needed a little help to see a person in someone who couldn’t talk like him.