Our family traveled to Great Britain this summer. It was a once-in-a-lifetime trip and an amazing opportunity to expose our son on the autism spectrum to new experiences and broaden his skills.
We met many people on our trip who were universally kind and professional. Some were the staff at the places we stayed. Some were the folks who sold us tickets or directed us at the sight-seeing locations we visited.
Our interactions with most people were brief, but there were some people, generally guides, with whom we interacted for longer periods of time.
There was one guide who was special: Charlie.
When we met Charlie, we talked briefly about what we would be doing and seeing before we started the tour. As I stepped away to help our son with something, Charlie approached my husband to discuss the tour in more detail. Then we were off.
Charlie was knowledgeable and ably led our tour. After a while, I started to notice how Charlie really seemed to know how to talk to our son and how to engage him during the tour.
Our son connected with Charlie in a way he didn’t usually with people he had just met. Other guides we encountered had tried to engage our son with things they assumed he would be interested in, like Harry Potter or sports. Our son didn’t respond to these attempts, and the guides would give up.
Charlie, on the other hand, listened to what our son talked about and then built conversations based on those interests.
I was impressed and very happy because our son was having a great time doing something he initially wasn’t really that interested in doing.
At one point in the tour, I had a chance to talk to Charlie alone. “You are amazing with him,” I said. “We didn’t mentioned this before, but he’s on the autism spectrum. You are really a natural at connecting with him.”
Charlie smiled a little shyly. “That’s because I am on the autism spectrum, too.”
Charlie realized our son was on the spectrum within minutes after meeting him. When we had stepped away prior to starting the tour, without disclosing the realization, Charlie had talked with my husband to modify the tour to better meet our son’s needs. He did things like:
• Limiting the tour to less crowded and noisy areas.
• Structuring the tour with defined sites, instead of a more free-flowing, flexible tour.
• Giving us ongoing reminders of where we were going and how many sites were left to see.
As we continued the tour, I thought about what a gift Charlie was. It was wonderful luck to have a tour guide who happened to be on the autism spectrum, who truly understood what being on the spectrum meant for our son and who was willing to quietly make changes to accommodate him.
Charlie had made the entire tour better for our son by just understanding him.
And it was more than that. As I watched them interacting, I realized we were getting a glimpse of the future I would wish for my son.
I have often thought about what he might do — his education and career goals — and how to prepare him for that. Charlie was an example for our son of what autism looked like in an adult, in someone he respected and enjoyed.
Charlie helped our son on our tour and gave us a positive vision of a promising future. A great gift indeed.
Details in this article have been changed and obscured for privacy.
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