What if Autism isn’t the Problem?
One time my little girls were on a playground and the oldest decided to make an imaginary birthday cake. She was so serious about it, so thoughtful about each decoration. It was touching at first, but then things got painful when she took her prized “cake,” carried it to a ten-year-old boy, and said, “Here’s a birthday cake I made for you.”
He totally ignored her, and it broke my heart.
It’s hard to watch your kids figure out that the world isn’t always a friendly place, but it’s part of life. Eventually, my daughter will develop an acute ability to pick up on social cues that tell her who the safe, friendly, and kind people are. But what if she never did develop those abilities? What if she couldn’t?
My friend Rachel Wilhelm talks about what it’s like to raise a wonderful, creative boy who grows into a young man and discovers he’s a part of the world that doesn’t get him – a world he doesn’t always get. As a part of Autism Awareness Month, take a moment to peek into her son’s life and consider how you might need to rethink the way you live yours.
Before we moved to Minnesota, my 18-year-old son had a job at a pizza place answering phones and working the cash register. He would come home every shift proud that he was earning money and competently doing his work. He was living life in the real world, working with and tolerating people, even though his Asperger’s diagnosis made this difficult for him. Beating these kinds of odds in his reality was a large victory.
When we moved to the frozen tundra of Minneapolis, my son was reluctant to leave his workplace, but hopeful that since he had experience he would easily find a job and do well. He did, in fact, easily find a job at another pizza place. It was a whirlwind of events in which he was hired almost on the spot because of short staffing, and his training was quick. First he was on the phones, and then he was doing everything else, all in the course of a couple of weeks. He would come home exhausted, but hopeful.
After about a month, he called me to pick him up early from one of his shifts. “Why are you coming home early?” I asked.
“Well, I think I just did all the work so quickly that there’s none left now. I guess I did a good job.” When I arrived, he came out of the building with a strange look on his face. He sat in the passenger’s seat, heaved a huge sigh, doubled over, and wept.
“I don’t understand what happened,” he whispered, “I thought I was doing fine.”
“What happened?” I said, alarmed, worried.
“I don’t know. The shift manager just told me that I was not meant to work in the food industry and I can’t multi-task. She says I just stand there waiting to be told what to do, and she can’t take it anymore. I can’t go back. She yelled at me. She told me to clock out and go home.”
Who’s Got the Disability?
Immediately I knew what happened. Because the pizza place was short staffed, they were training my son to do everything, and he couldn’t keep up.
My son has short-term memory issues that stem from his Asperger’s diagnosis. So I’m sure he wasn’t recalling all of his tasks quickly enough and was freezing up when being told to move from one activity to another. He also doesn’t understand jokes or sarcasm very well either, so he probably wasn’t picking up on his co-workers’ verbal or body language until it was extremely apparent.
It must have been the last straw for the manager to send my son home early and then overhear him say it was because he was doing such a good job. So she let him have it because she couldn’t take it anymore.
I know my son well, and I’ve got a good idea what was running through his mind as he sat there in the passenger’s seat: Why do I have to strive so hard to be “normal”? Aren’t “normal” people the most intolerable of all?
I mean, think about it. It’s not like he was yelling. And to top it off, just because my son didn’t pick up on all the social cues, a “normal” person got to break the very rules they wanted him to live by. Where is the draw to be like them? And who made these rules anyway?
The next day my son went in for his shift. The manager told him that she thought he quit, and they already filled his time slots with other employees. He walked home.
Over and over again I have read of these kinds of things happening to people with a high-functioning autism diagnosis. Because they look “normal” everyone assumes they are. But it’s like expecting high school maturity out of a fifth grader who happens to be too tall for his age. That expectation, that lack of understanding is what brings out the worst in people who interact with young men like my son. But instead of seeing their own character deficits, they assume it’s okay for them to act inappropriately towards him because they can’t take it anymore. The irony.
Maybe “Normal” Isn’t a Good Thing
About a year ago I was at a grocery store. An older employee zoomed in between a customer and an end cap and almost knocked the customer over. She railed after him yelling, “Excuse me! What is your problem?”
The employee just kept going, completely unaware of what happened. He was, without question, a man with Asperger’s.
The woman couldn’t let it go. She was very offended and approached a cashier to tell him what happened. She was pointing in the direction of the offending employee while yelling, wide-eyed, and crazy. I stepped up to her and quietly said, “Excuse me.”
“Yes?” she said, turning to me (the cashier was clearly relieved).
“I think he has autism. He didn’t realize what he had done. He doesn’t get social norms, so he had no idea you were upset at him and didn’t hear you. I have a son who has autism and I saw what happened. And I guarantee you, it wasn’t intentional.”
Her face fell. She clasped her heart and said, “I had no idea. I’m so sorry. That makes all the sense in the world. Thank you for telling me this.”
I admire this woman’s humility. Instead of being embarrassed and offended by me, she took the criticism and saw it as education. So many more moments like this could happen if people were aware, or if the ones who are aware would speak up.
People with Asperger’s or high functioning autism would probably agree that acting neurotypical (or “normal”) is their goal to function in this world. But let’s consider the confusing signals we send when people with autism test our patience, and we respond by ignoring the very social norms that are supposedly so important to us.
If Rachel’s story spoke to you, consider sharing this link on social media with the hashtag #AutismAwareness.