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What Tolerance vs. Acceptance Looks Like on a Schoolyard Playground

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Sometimes I find myself worrying about my son with autism, Max, and what his life will be like in the future. What if he is teased by his peers in school? What if he never knows what it’s like to be in love? What if he’s all alone in middle age? What if? Such thoughts are weighted down with the knowledge that my husband and I are not spring chickens. Fast-forward my 7-year-old to 45 or so. Will he still need his parents in some way? And if so, will we even be around? Others have tried to reassure me that Max has a loving safety net created by his family and friends, including three siblings who will never let him fall. While this gives me some solace, it doesn’t completely block the worrying.

After hours spent dwelling on what I hope Max will experience as he grows, I’ve come to realize what I don’t want for him — tolerance. Don’t get me wrong, I’d much prefer that the people Max meets express tolerance toward his differences, rather than bullying. It’s more that I see tolerance as merely the first step in a long journey toward acceptance and not as the end destination itself.

To better illustrate what I mean: When I was in school, there was a boy who I’ll call “Michael.” Michael was a child who was clearly different and didn’t seem to have any true friends. One day in fifth grade, our teacher asked me to be “in charge” when he had to leave the room. As soon as the teacher returned, I rushed over, saying loudly, “Here’s a list of the kids who talked. Michael talked the most, at least 10 times! I know he can’t help it, though.”

I remember the teacher giving me a “look,” and me not understanding what message he was trying to convey.

“But Michael isn’t supposed to get in trouble because he has problems with his brain, right?”

“Thank you, Alicia. Please return to your seat.”

I remember feeling confused by my teacher’s response and being totally oblivious to Michael, who was sitting in the front row and had likely heard every sanctimonious word out of my mouth.

Other Michael stories arise. I remember noticing boys teasing him at recess and running up to them yelling, “You leave him alone!” I remember the warm feeling that coursed through my veins at having done such a good deed without even expecting anything in return! Only now my memory goes further, to a less warm place. I’m reminded of how quickly I left Michael on the playground by himself so I could go and play with my friends. Did I invite Michael to come play, too? Of course not! Because my standing up to bullies wasn’t for Michael’s sake, it was for my own, to feel good about myself, not to make friends with someone who seemed so…strange.

Fast-forward a few decades. When my son, Daniel, was in second grade, I used to wait with him on the school tarmac before the bell rang. One morning, I noticed a little boy who was standing alone, looking like he didn’t know quite what to do. I remember feeling relieved the next morning when I saw the little boy’s mother waiting with him, holding tightly onto his hand.

A few months later, I met with Daniel’s teacher for a parent-teacher interview. “That son of yours made me cry the other day,” she said.

“Daniel made you cry?” I asked. “I’m so sorry!”

“No, no,” she said. “He made me cry in a good way!”

“He did?” Now I was even more confused.

“There is a little boy in our class who is autistic,” she confided. “We’ve talked to the children and made sure no one bullies him, but we can’t force them to play with him. Each recess he stood by himself until last week when Daniel asked him if he wanted to play.” She paused. “That’s all it took. Ever since they’ve been playing together!”

At supper that night, I brought up the topic to Daniel. “Do you notice anything different about your friend?” I asked.

Daniel shrugged. “Well…he jumps up and down a lot and talks in a kind of funny voice when he’s excited, I guess.”

“And what do you like about him?”

Daniel shrugged again. “He likes to play Star Wars with me and he’s fun. Plus, he wants to be my friend, too.”

And that was that. For the next several years until we moved away, Daniel and his new buddy were best friends. Not because Daniel tolerated him, but because Daniel liked him for who he was, with being fun more important than having a funny voice or jumping up and down.

That’s acceptance. And that’s what I hope more than anything for my own little boy.

Alicia Hendley the mighty.1-001

Originally published: September 2, 2015
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