It seems that while I have been blissfully posting about my son’s wonderful classroom, much of the rest of the autism blogosphere has been on fire in response to a post written by a blogger called Smockity, who writes at Smockity Frocks.
First, let me offer this caveat: I know next to nothing about Smockity. I have read just one of her posts. My understanding is that she has no connection to autism and that, in fact, she had no idea that she was writing about an autistic child when she wrote a blog post called "In Which Smockity Considers Jabbing A Ball Point Pen Into Her Eye," which has since been removed from her blog, but is cached here.
In brief: Smockity's post was, I think, intended to be a humorous account of a visit to the library, during which she and her children encountered a grandmother with a child who bounced on her toes, flapped her hands, and used perseverative language. Most of us in the autism community recognized this child - and this grandmother - instantly. Smockity did not. Her post unfolded as a diatribe against the sort of parenting (or grandparenting) that yields rude, self-indulgent, ill-mannered children.
Much has been written about the post, the response, and Smockity's response to the response. Both Squidalicious and Liz Ditz have posted links to responses that reflect outrage, disbelief, and the feeling that I had when I read Smockity's post - a sinking recognition that perhaps all those times when Bud has struggled in public and I've left a place red-faced and anguished, afraid I'd been judged or mocked or disdained by the people around us, I'd been right. As I read, I remembered why I stay home so often, skipping the trips to the places I want or need to go, simply to avoid the potential of having to manage a difficult situation under public scrutiny.
But, again, I don't know Smockity. I don't know her motivation for writing the post and I don't know how she feels right now. She has replaced her original post with a new message, in which she says that she won't respond to attacks on Twitter, e-mail or blogs. Let me be clear - I don't intend to attack Smockity with this response. But I also try to put myself in her shoes.
I'm certain that there have been times in my life when I've said something that I thought was humorous, but which actually offended someone. There are times when someone has called me out for being thoughtless or insensitive and I have reacted defensively. There have been times when I should have said I was sorry, but - because of my defensiveness, or my pride, or my embarrassment - I didn't. But I would like to believe that, in each of those cases, though I was unable to step up and own my mistakes, I spent countless hours in private reviewing them, imagining do-overs, and preparing myself to act differently in the future.
I'd like to believe that Smockity is doing that now. If I were her, even if I said I wasn't going to read the blog posts that were written about me, I know that I wouldn't be able to stay away. I'd read them privately, and I'd seethe, or I'd cry, or I'd scream, or I'd feel really, really bad. So, I'm writing this post in the hope that Smockity, or others who saw themselves in her words, will read it and think.
My full-time job is in college student affairs, and there are two things we talk about a lot in my department: utilizing teachable moments and providing opportunities for student learning. We recognize that students may not take advantage of the opportunities we provide, but we provide them all the same. We look for a moment to present itself, then we try to shape the experience or the conversation in that moment to meet a student where she is and to help her to consider a picture that is just a bit bigger.
This feels like a teachable moment, and I'd like to provide an opportunity for some learning.
You see, I saw myself in the grandmother in Smockity's post, as she stood with her granddaughter, waiting for Smockity's children to finish on the computer. Smockity writes,
"The girl never left her position at the computers and continued bouncing,
flapping, and proclaiming, “I’m waiting patiently! It’s almost my turn! I’m
being patient, Grandma!” to which Grandma would reply, “That’s right,
Preciousdarling Angelface, You are being very patient. Just one more minute.”
This was repeated… repeatedly.
Do you ever get the distinct feeling that, although a speaker is not addressing
you directly, the message that is being spoken is intended just for you?"
Of course, I can't know what the grandmother's intentions were, but had I been in her place, I would have done the same thing. Through my inflection, my repetition, and my use of language that seemed both intentional and unusual, I would have been trying to send a message to Smockity. My message would have been something like this:
I know that your children were at the computers first, and I know that I have no right to ask them to step aside and make room for my child, but here's the thing: you have NO IDEA how important this activity is to him, nor how hard he is working at holding it together right now. Your children look delightful and I'm sure they enjoy playing on the computer, but I have a hunch that this might be one of many things that they enjoy. I imagine that your children play with friends, that they enjoy board games, that they have a variety of interests, and that if this computer were not available to them, they would be able to think of ten other things they'd enjoy doing just as much. But, I'm telling you, that is not the case for my child. My child has been talking about THIS game on THIS computer at THIS library all week. And by that, I don't mean once a day all week. I mean from the moment he has woken up until the moment he has fallen asleep, he has talked about nothing but THIS game on THIS computer at THIS library. Our day, our week - it seems, even, our life - has been built around this moment, and I have to tell you: if this computer is not available to him, he will not be able to think of ANY other thing he would like to do, because right now, at this stage in his life, he does not play with friends, he does not enjoy board games, he does not have ANY other interest beyond THIS game on THIS computer at THIS library. And I know that's not your fault or your problem, and I know that your children have every right to keep on playing until they're finished, but I'm BEGGING you, PLEASE - can you help me out here? Can you intervene? Can you suggest that maybe they could finish up in five minutes, ten minutes, SOME predictable time frame so that I'll know how long I have to manage this situation and help this child hold himself together? Please?
That would have been my message. But my WORDS would have sounded something like this: “That’s right, Preciousdarling Angelface, You are being very patient. Just one more minute.” Repeatedly.
And the flapping. Let me tell you about the flapping. Bud's flapping provokes two simultaneous, equally strong reactions in me. The first is trepidation, because Bud's flapping in public instantly presents him as "other" to the strangers around us, as this child's did with Smockity. But the second is delight, because when Bud flaps, I know that he is experiencing genuine excitement and joy. Bud's flapping is a physiological response to emotion, and he flaps because his hair-dryer brain processes excitement and joy differently from our toaster brains. Bud flaps with excitement the same way that people laugh when something is funny - automatically, immediately, and reactively. Bud could no more keep from flapping when he's happy than I could stop my stomach from growling when I'm hungry.
That's what I'd say to Smockity, if I had an opportunity to say something to Smockity. But she may not come over here. She may let the opportunity pass.
So, here's another idea. This Friday, April 2, is World Autism Awareness Day. Autism mom and blogger Jean "Stimey" Winegardner has written a measured, thoughtful response for The Washington Times, which is directed to people who don't have direct experience with autism. Let's pass it on to the people we know, and ask them to pass it on to the people they know who don't know anyone with autism, but who may encounter them in the supermarket, on the playground, or in the library. Let's give people an opportunity to think about their reactions before they are forced to react.
World Autism Awareness Day. It's a teachable moment. Let's provide an opportunity for a little learning.