April is autism awareness month. You might wonder why we need an entire month dedicated to awareness of autism. It is because of comments like what my son had to hear today while playing games with a group of children, “Don’t pick him! He can’t play! He has autism!” It wasn’t whispered quietly in hushed tones, it was said out loud for all in the room to hear, including my son. I can’t help but wonder if those words are spoken so boldly for even his mother to hear, what kind of things are said when there is not someone around to stick up for him. It still stings just thinking about those words coming out of the mouth of another child towards my son.
We need so much more than a simple awareness of what autism is. We need awareness that EVERYONE deserves to be respected and treated like a human being. It is often difficult for my son to understand the complex rules of social interaction. It is difficult for him to understand what is expected of him in group situations, and it is often hard for him physically to make his body work in the way he would like to be able to play group games such as kickball, baseball, or even tag. He does however desperately want to be included and given the chance to do the best he can. He wants to have friends, he wants to play, and learn, and be accepted like everyone else. NOBODY wants to be left out or treated as if they are less than others.
What do I want for autism awareness month? I want every parent to take just a couple of minutes of their time to teach their children exactly what I just said. That it is never ok to hurt someone’s feelings and that autism or not, every child should be treated with respect and dignity. That and only that is what will make a difference in how my son and countless others like him are treated.
The other day, my son was in a group situation coloring a picture, when one of the other kids said to me “He is not coloring that right. He is just scribbling all over it.” My heart broke. I knew the child wasn’t trying to be malicious. He had simply been taught at some point in time that the “right” way to color a picture was to stay perfectly in the lines, to make it look like everyone else’s. He was just stating what he thought was a fact.
The thing is, the boy did not know how hard it was for my son to simply to sit at that table and focus without rocking back and forth or stimming on the crayon, he didn’t know how hard my son had worked for years to even be able to correctly hold that crayon, or how hard it was for him to verbally ask for a color he wanted. To me, that picture he had been creating was beautiful, because I knew how special it was for my son to be doing what he was doing. But to the other child, it was just scribbles. My son does not have very good communication skills.His receptive skills, his understanding of what others say, however is quite good. He stopped coloring when the child said that and simply looked at his picture with a sad expression and put his crayon down.
I told my son how beautiful I thought his picture was and I told both him and the other child that there is no wrong or right way to color a picture. That is what makes it art, that we each can do it differently and it still be beautiful, but the comments of mine were no match for what my son had already heard.
Words are powerful. They can build someone up or completely tear someone down in less than a moment’s time. I can’t help but wonder how many artists are told in their lifetime that they aren’t doing it the right way. What a boring world it would be if they all listened. Truly life in general is a lot like that, particularly for my son. He may live his life a bit differently than others, but that does not make it any less beautiful. Sadly, I am pretty sure he will continue to hear from those who don’t know better that “he is not doing it the right way.” But, as his mother, I will continue to tell him that it is just as beautiful (if not more) to color (and live) outside the lines, to hold his head up high, and show the beauty his has to share. Here’s hoping the rest of the world soon learns that lesson too.