I remember one such moment a few years back. Peter was about 5 years old and he and I were in the car together, driving to his next activity, whatever it might have been. It was a cloudless, hot summer day and as we passed Highway 441 I saw “Bill” waiting at the bus stop, in the scorching heat. Bill is a 50-something man with autism, who used to work as a janitor at my former employer’s office. He acts much like a child, but with a good support network manages to live on his own.
Sensing a “teaching moment”, I pulled over to offer Bill a ride. I gently reminded Bill who I was, and he accepted the ride, cautiously entering the car. Bill lived on the other side of town so the ride took 15 minutes. (If you’re not from Gainesville, it takes 15 minutes to get anywhere in this town. I know it defies the laws of physics, but no matter where you are going, it will take exactly 15 minutes to get there. Ask anyone.)
For the duration of the car ride, Bill looked downward, never making eye contact, and repeated himself on an endless loop about how scared he had been that the bus was never going to pick him up, and he would be left there all night. This was absurd of course, because Bill rides that bus almost every day, and it comes quite regularly. But this is one manifestation of Bill’s autism.
Anyway, after we finally dropped Bill off, I figured it was a good chance to enlighten Peter about how some people are different than us, and all that important stuff. Well, Peter turned the lesson right around on me. I was unable to convince Peter that Bill was “different” in any way. Not making eye contact is the norm for kids Peter’s age. And, Peter totally understood how scary being stranded at the bus stop all night would be! To him, Bill was perfectly normal. I realized quickly how in tune my “radar” is – how quick I am to label people as “weird”. For better or for worse, with time, Peter will probably build up his ability to label people as well.
It’s the same thing at the nursing home. Kids don’t seem to notice anything unusual about the residents there. Maybe just a little bit – I mean, you can’t help but notice they are all in wheelchairs. But mostly, kids seem to find nursing home residents exotic, and approach them with curiosity. My daughter Annie adores this 93 year old lady named Doris, and clings to her whenever the chaos at the nursing home gets too much.
Thinking back to my own childhood, I have memories of my Great-Grandmother – we called her “Mimi” – and her sisters. Mimi lived to be 101 and several of her sisters lived into their 90s. They were all so friendly and loving, and I vividly remember how beautifully wrinkled Mimi’s face was – I thought she was the most beautiful person on earth. I can picture her so clearly even now, and the way I felt about her looks. That’s not the same reaction we have as adults to someone that looks like that – we’d probably think “I wonder if she has Alzheimers”.
“Truly I tell you…unless you become like these little children…” said the wise man. I think I understand that a little more now.