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Monday, July 1, 2013

Autism Parents - We Need Some Stinking Badges!

Over the weekend, the kids and I were at a campground, and while they were splashing and playing in the pool, I was lazing indolently on a lounge chair, glancing up from my Kindle every so often to make sure all was well. Not that I had to worry much - they both swim like fish and the pool was lifeguarded, but I'm a Mom and I can't not check on them.

I'm a bit chagrined to say that I didn't notice the girl at first. I mean, I knew she was there in the periphery, happily playing by herself, jumping into the pool over and over and swimming in endless circles. She was happy, really, really happy in the water. That much I saw at first and filed away.

As the day went on, I saw an older gentleman get up a few times and try to take her picture. She refused to cooperate and wouldn't stop playing long enough to do so. She even shrieked at him once for trying to stand in front of her and snap a shot. That's what first caught my attention.

Another hour went by, maybe two. The kids and I went and had lunch and came back, and the girl in the bright orange suit was still happily swimming. By now, an older woman who was clearly the man's wife had joined him, and she took the chair between him and me.

And then they started talking.

"Why do you think she does that?" He said. "I just don't get it. What's with the circles? She just wants to swim in circles. Over and over."

"I don't know." Said the woman. "Who knows what she's thinking? And there she goes with her eyes again."

I looked more closely at her now, knowing even before I observed her, what I would probably see. The little girl would touch her index fingers to her lips, then her eyes, over and over again, in a very ritual sort of way. She did it hundreds of times, too. She didn't like the pool water in her eyes, not even a little bit. When the man and woman told her to stop, she got angry, shrieking at them. They tried to rinse her eyes with bottled water, and she shook her hands wildly, knocking the bottle out of their grip. She jumped back in the pool, and started swimming in circles again, and they kept trying to figure her out.

"You should have been here earlier," the man said. "I didn't know what to do. She went in the bathroom, and didn't come out for a long, long time. I finally had to go in there after her - in the ladies' room! And there she was, curled up in the shower stall crying her eyes out."

"Why?" Asked the woman.

"Because I forgot to get her french fries at lunch. I didn't even know. And what was I supposed to do? I had to hope no one was in the ladies' room because I had no one to help me."

He looked angrily at the woman, and I thought, I'd have helped. I would have helped you. And not just because your kid is probably like my kid. I wish you would have asked. I could have helped probably a lot more than you know.

And while it was obvious as they talked more that they were grandparents and woefully unsure of how to deal with their granddaughter and her needs, and while I watched their daughter and knew to the marrow of my bones that this child was a child with autism, just like mine, I couldn't just ask.

Because if I say "Sorry if I seem forward, but is your granddaughter a child with autism?" and she's not, I might offend them for thinking that. And then I'm going to get offended that they'd be offended by the thought of their grandkid being autistic, because there's nothing offensive about it.

And I wanted so badly to ask them. It was obvious that they loved their granddaughter and they wanted oh-so-much to connect with her. I'm betting they would have peppered me with questions that I would have gladly answered.

So I did the next best thing. I called my daughter over to the edge of the pool and asked her if she saw that video I sent her, about the surfer who created a group to teach children with autism  how to surf. Then I told her I wished we lived on a coastline, so I could enroll her brother. She looked at me like I was nuts, but I had to wave an autism flag somehow.

Then I called David over, and I tried to get him to go make a new friend. He wanted none of it, because he'd just learned how to jump off the diving board and he wanted to be at the other end of the pool. I wasn't going to force him.

What I wanted to do was chalk a giant rainbow puzzle piece on the concrete and stand in the middle of it with a megaphone shouting, "Here we are! How can we help?"

But until someone waves their bona-fide "We have a kid with autism" flag, I have to watch helplessly, and drop hints with the subtlety of a falling wall of brick. In this case, they were so absorbed in trying to figure her out, they'd pretty much tuned me out. They did get in the water with her, and were delighted to discover that if they swam in circles with her, she laughed and laughed and laughed.

Yes, that's it! I thought. Get into her world. You're doing great!

And they were. They'll find their way. And in so doing, their granddaughter will teach them all about herself. It'll work out for them.

But we really need some stinking badges in this club. We really do.

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