When I heard the words, “is it okay if I act like an autistic and screech at you?”, a sharp pain heaved inside my body. The words came out of the person’s mouth so easily, effortlessly, as if the language used were commonplace. My mind swirled into the moments when my own son recently worked with his ABA therapist and shared that he screeched at others when he felt stressed or scared. In a very vulnerable moment, my son, Buddy, shared with me how he likes to make a noise like a pterodactyl because he doesn’t know how to express his stress at the moment. Instead, he envelopes himself into the high-pitched screech that signals to me and his loved ones, that something isn’t right in life. He sometimes raises his arms up in the air and then flaps them up-and-down, repeatedly, as if he were a pterodactyl flying through the sky. I know in this moment that my cue is to turn down the noise in the house, dim the lights, and diffuse some vetiver oil into the room. I also know this is my moment to listen to his screech because it is his moment of stress. His stress, like mine, can sometimes consume my behaviors because it owns my thinking. And while I don’t make noises, I do, in fact, eat chocolate, isolate from my family, and even cry. Neither response is correct or right; however, both are responses to stress.
The words “is it okay if I act like an autistic and screech at you?”, prompted an abrupt, yet simple response: “Excuse me, do you know what you just said? Do you know how hurtful those words are?” After I received no response from this individual, I realized that my tone of voice wasn’t compassionate or calm. Instead, it was sharp and defensive. I dropped all my previous training and work in the education field in these few seconds. Yet, how can I expect a response from someone when I am only bouncing the ball back with the same judgment?
So, after a few days of reflection, I now believe my response would have been better received if I put aside my emotional connection to my son and focused more on empathy. Perhaps this individual would have received my perspective better if I shared why some individuals on the autism spectrum screech. Or maybe there could have been a conversation with an invitation to explore autism. Or maybe I would have come to understand this person was also victimized by hurtful words – and was only putting more back out into our world.
What does matter is that there is still great work to be done with creating more empathy around autism spectrum disorder. I invite you to say something the next time you hear a joke about a person with unique abilities. I ask you to say something not only because you may impact the viewpoint of the speaker, but you may inspire an onlooker to do the same. And, while the words I heard still rattle like a sharp needle in my brain, I do know that I can do better. We can all do better. And, our world, our children, deserve to see this kind of better – the kindness and empathy tucked into the small moments.
Can you join me?