The other day we had a few girls from the neighborhood over. I was sitting, having a cup of coffee and talking to my best friend, who happens to be the mother of one of the girls. I heard another little girl ask my best friend’s child, “What is wrong with Gabby?”
This is a moment that usually causes me to cringe because even though the girls are just playing in my living room with toys and watching a Disney movie on TV, this one’s already figured out that my daughter is different. Without any meltdowns or tantrums, this new child has caught on to my daughter’s disability.
I hold my breath and wait to hear her response. My best friend’s daughter smiles and says, “Well Gabby has autism, and that’s what makes her special. She lives in a world that is different than ours…kind of like her brain does not work the same way.”
The other little girl says, “Is that why she is weird?”
My best friend’s daughter laughs and says, “She is not weird; she just likes to play ‘make believe’ a lot, and she really likes horses. You just have to play the things she wants to play, and if she gets rough you have to tell her mom. She doesn’t like scary movies, and she cries a lot some days, but her mom is the only mom in the neighborhood who will let everyone come inside, and she always serves snacks and drinks. Just give her some time and you will see the real her.”
Their conversation only lasted a minute, but what I learned in that minute is other children can accept my child, but they will not be fooled. They know pretty soon after meeting Gabby that she’s unique. I’ve never been secretive about Gabby’s disabilities. I often speak about the challenges and triumphs of our little girl to others.
My child stands out from the bunch; she probably always will, but listening to this little girl’s definition of autism and then having them play with Gabby lets me know she will continue to spread awareness. When she runs into another boy or girl in school, they will understand a little better what autism is. It’s not something to be scared of. “Autistic” does not mean they can’t be friends. It just mean an individual is unique but wants to play, just like every other child. A little patience and understanding is required.
This little girl took the facts a friend shared with her and played for the rest of the afternoon with my little girl. She ended up having a great time playing horses. Not all days go like this; some days my child is upset with the other little girls, and we have to close our door and send everyone home. But today we made a new friend, and the girls got to play inside on a cold day. My child got to experience normal play with a group of girls, and that is always my goal.
Despite Gabby being different, I’m firmly committed to her being part of our community. I drag her to Sunday school, even though she doesn’t make it in the class very long. Other children are exposed to her for a short while, and that’s important for her and them. One in 68 children are affected with autism today; my child may be the first autistic child these kindergarteners get to know, but she wont be the last.
When dark clouds appear above my head and life with a special needs child gets me down, I force myself to push away the darkness and live in the light. I remember we need to go out — not for Gabby or me — but for all the other little children struggling with autism. I hear much too often moms of children with autism saying, “It’s not worth the hassle to take her to the fair.” I would agree with them on that statement; it would be easier to keep the doors closed and let Gabby play by herself. That’s where she’s most comfortable, and no outside influences will push her outside of her comfort zone. But if any child needs to be pushed, it’s an autistic child. I cannot keep her in a perfect bubble or world for long. As much as I would like to keep my child safe and have no one question or make fun of her, that’s not reality. So I push her to events in our community, church and school, not because my child enjoys those events so much, but because we’re going for the autistic children coming after us. Just like the parents before us who pushed their children into our communities, we must continue to do the same.
We have to keep going, pushing and being seen. We have to keep having conversations with strangers and our children’s friends about autism. Putting my daughter out in the world, making her uncomfortable is the only way I can make social interaction easier for her and others around her. Practice makes perfect! So practice we shall.