We went to the pediatrician’s office the other day. The office was pretty full of parents and older kids but there was a sweet, very bright, almost three-year-old boy playing with toys. Nate instantly wanted to join him. Trying to contain myself, Nate toddled over and sat on the floor and I joined him and his new friend. Nate played in parallel with the child and the boy said “Hi!” Being Nate’s voice, I said “hi” back. The boy very articulately started asking about Nate. What does he like? (Lots of things! What do you like?) Does he like this toy or that toy? (I think he likes the toy that he’s playing with right now.) Does he like Thomas the Tank? Because I like Thomas the Tank! (He thinks Thomas is ok but he really likes Curious George the best.) The kid really chat it up.
The boy’s parents were snickering, watching their son, and making sure he shared with Nate. When he got a little grabby, he was instructed to share. Nate was none the wiser. He had a found a train with some push buttons and became a bit stuck on the open-close motions of the toy. I didn’t dare re-direct Nate. He was playing in parallel with a peer — a stranger no less!!! You push those buttons all you want, Nater Tater!
The kid kept talking and I kept answering for Nate. Finally, the boy looked at me and most innocently and genuinely asked, “Lady. Why doesn’t your son talk?”
So, I said, “Well, Nate is autistic. Speech is something he’s working on. But he can do all sorts of awesome things like sign language and talk with pictures. And he’s really good at playing with toys!”
The boy shrugged his shoulders and said, “Ok.” and kept on peppering me with questions about Nate as he brought Tater new toys to try out. The adults in the room? HOLEY. The wind had been completely sucked out of the room. Everyone, especially the kid’s parents, were a shade of red. No adult said anything after that.
Here’s what I don’t get: what’s the big deal? The kid asked a pretty valid question, although way more intuitive than I would normally give a two-year-old credit for. And I gave him an honest and age-appropriate answer. How awesome is it that this sweet, bright boy now knows someone with autism? And how great is it that Nate got to meet a new kid who wanted to play with him? Similarly, if the adults had never met a kid with autism, well — now they had. And he’s smart and bright, too – just in a different way from this chatty kid. It felt like every adult wanted to retreat to their own corner in embarrassment: embarrassment that Nate had been outed and in a doctor’s office, no less, where HIPAA rules. But there are no medical record confidentiality notices on the playground. And there should be honest answers to those who kindly ask. To be honest, I wish more kids and adults were like our chatty pal at our pediatrician’s office. If they were, maybe people would be kinder and more understanding of one another.
The kid eventually got called in to see the doctor and Nate kept playing with the train. Now that his new friend had left, I re-directed Nate to less of a stim toy. Before we knew it, it was our turn to see Dr. Syd. Nate passed out high-fives to all the nurses, receptionists, and doctors as we walked down the hall and, rather than clamming up, they celebrated Nate’s interest in interacting with other people.
So, if you meet a kid who is special in some way, I hope you’ll celebrate the child’s uniqueness. Nate’s pretty proud of who he is — and so are we! Hopefully, the others in his world will rise to meet the occasion, too.