A Mile in Someone Else’s Shoes
Over the weekend my youngest, age 3.5, mentioned that one of his classmates stole a cookie from him. He emphasized how “mean” it was for her to take his cookie.
I nodded a little, but then stepped in with a rather clumsy defense as he continued to talk about how “mean” this little girl is. "Well,” I attempted, "you need to not worry so much about her," I swallowed a bit, "Um, she’s sick."
I immediately regretted the word-choice.
"Um, she has trouble understanding what is right. She didn’t want to be ‘mean’ when she took your cookie; she just saw something she wanted."
I struggled to explain, wanting to avoid words like “mentally retarded,” “delayed,” or worse, “autistic.” I was awkward, and should have just let my son rant instead of attempting to defend the little girl.
But in that moment, I wondered whether the same conversation had been repeated amongst my older son’s classmates when he was in preschool. Did the parents say, “Yes, what a mean boy!”? Did they attempt to give him the “special exception” treatment that would have made me wince, and yet I was doing it for this little girl? Or did they just ignore it, thinking that all kids do funny things sometimes?
I thought about how my son when he was her age is surely different than this little girl. And yet, I recognized the ways in which he was not.
Meanwhile, my older son was in the car. He could easily listen to the conversation. I wondered if he has heard the word “autistic,” especially if he’s heard it in relation to himself. Certainly medical professionals have used the word in his presence, although during the latest trip to the doctor, his pediatrician had avoided it, instead saying something clumsy about “I know you have had some past issues with him” and “you’re getting mental health services for him” (even though we aren’t; Kaiser doesn’t recognize spectrum disorders as being their responsibility, and in fact uses the diagnosis to deny “regular” health-related services if the child happens to have an ASD label.)Continued on the next page