Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Checking my assumptions

I have a routine after my monthly support group meetings. On my way home I always stop by a fast food restaurant and pick up a late dinner for hubby and I to share. By the time I get home, the kids are in bed and we have a little time by ourselves to eat, talk, and watch a program together. In our world, this is a date...recliner style. We take what we can get.
As I was sitting in the drive-thru waiting to pay, I was listening to my radio tunes with the window rolled down. (I will have you know that I was respectful with my volume, unlike when I’m Rockin’ Mama.) I kept hearing what sounded like a conversation, but when trying to locate those who were talking I was having a hard time. The drive-thru window was closed and no employees were near the window. There was no one waiting behind me in line. I couldn’t figure it out. The only other person I saw was a woman standing at the corner waiting to cross at the crosswalk. It was very dark outside and the rain was coming down.
Not sure what I was hearing, I turned off the radio and heater (which was blowing on full blast because my window was down). I’m a curious person. I admit it. In fact, my parents used to call me Barbara Walters as a child because I was always asking questions. So, now that there was no background noise to interfere, I began intently listening. And I figured it out. It was the woman waiting at the corner.
I am no stranger to seeing people talking to themselves in a loud manner. I used to work in a community just outside of Seattle when I was in college, relying on a bus for my transport. There was a man who used to be at my stop that would yell and carry on, trying to punch things…like the air. He would argue quite violently with himself and he would get very animated and physical. It was quite disturbing to a young gal in college just trying to get to her work study job and back to her dorm in one piece. But, I got used to it and grew accustomed to his antics and learned to give him space on the days that he was exceedingly “energetic.”
Well, I began thinking about that experience and how crazy that guy seemed all those years ago. With that filter, I started to analyze this woman that was angrily having a conversation with herself at the street corner. The immediate thought I had was that she was obviously crazy. She had a few screws loose. She reminded me a lot of the guy I used to see up in Seattle. And then I watched her do something quite unexpected.
She had been waiting very impatiently for the light to turn so she could cross the street and had been pacing almost the whole time. The light turned and the crosswalk indicated it was safe to cross. She started walking across and got about 1/3 of the way across when the crosswalk light changed to the flashing warning hand (with the time that counts down the number of seconds you have left to safely cross the street). She saw the light change color and exclaimed loudly. Angrily, she turned around and walked back to her starting point to wait again, despite having 13 seconds of time to finish crossing the street.
The one and only Temple Grandin.
She was so flustered that she forgot to push the crosswalk button and waited through another rotation without crossing the street because the light didn’t change. It was at that time that I really noticed what she looked like, and strangely enough, in the illumination of the street lights against the darkness I realized that she resembled Temple Grandin. Soon after, I received my order and drove by her on my way home.
I started thinking about what I just saw, trying to let go of my automatic assumptions. The first thing that stood out was that she was rule bound! She turned around to come back to her starting point rather than continuing across the street when the red hand was flashing. Then, she did not cross the street with traffic flow because the light didn’t tell her she could. I couldn’t hear what she had been saying, but for all I know she may have been upset with the fact that the crosswalk was not cooperating and allowing her to properly cross the street, leaving her to stand longer in the rain without an umbrella.
How many of our kids on the spectrum are rule bound? How many of them talk to themselves or make weird noises? How many of them cannot handle unexpected situations and get angry with unpleasant transitions?
I’ve been entrenched in the special needs community for several years now and I’ve seen a lot. I meet so many families who have children with a wide variety of disabilities and differences that I feel like I have a good grasp on sensitivity. I always believed that I had checked all of that judgmental baggage at the door when we received our diagnosis. I was shocked at how easily it bubbled to the surface while I sat there in that drive-thru. My assumption was that the lady was nuts. But, I immediately realized that was an unfair assessment. There were any number of things that could have contributed to what I saw unfold in front of me. And yes, one of those things could be autism.  
Boy, I have a long way to go.
Do you find yourself still doing this, too?        
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