Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The group at the mall

“Invisible threads are the strongest ties.” 
― Friedrich Nietzsche

I knew the moment I heard him that the boy was autistic. Was it the cadence, the sing-song quality to his voice? Did I even hear any words, or was it just babbling? I don't remember. I just know that it sounded so much like Soren. I knew in an instant.

I was at the mall today (don't judge). There was a group of ten or so people: special-needs kids who were maybe 10 years old and their aides. They were having lunch in the food court of the mall. And I knew right away that this was a group like Soren will be in in a few years. Probably from a self-contained classroom, with quite a few aides and lots of happy but decidedly different kids.

I'm impressed that this was the destination. It was chaotic: lots of people, stores, lights, new experiences. Way too many mall-walkers. One young man in the group really needed to pace, so his aide followed him around the perimeter of the food court, holding his hand, looking like she does this stress release with him a lot.

I was shocked that I found myself staring at the group. Yep, staring. I couldn't believe it either. I can't stand it when strangers stare at Soren and me when we're in public places and maybe making a little too much unconventional noise. But I was staring in a different way--with recognition.

I felt immediate camaraderie with this group, like these were my people. It's the same way I feel toward Soren's classroom peers. It's almost maternal, this affection for the kids that I see in his class every day. There's such a soft place in my heart for them; I swear I'm their favorite aunt. I wonder if this is what their teachers feel, too.

Of course I stared in defensiveness, too. I was just waiting for some random mall teenager to make a snide comment. In my mind I dared someone say something or practice their best eye-roll. I was ready with a little condescending lecture (which didn't need to happen, thank goodness).

And I stared out of curiosity, frankly. I was so intrigued at what Soren and his cohort will look like in a few years. Ah, so this is what a 10-year-old Soren will be like. The tics and sounds are a little more awkward, perhaps, to others. The difference is more obvious. That was a little sad to me--the fact that my child will be that much more noticeably different and subject to ridicule (or just staring). But the similarities to Soren and his peers now are striking. The kinetic energy, the sounds, the rhythm of these kids are just like Soren's. And frankly, I don't have many chances to see what older Soren will be like. So I stared. Or rather, I tried to stare without being noticed.

I wondered what I would have said if one of the aides caught me staring over my Americano. Maybe "I have a kid like this too"? Nah, that sounds offensive and condescending. "I get it"? Perhaps. Or maybe just a knowing glance would have covered it. I think such softened eye contact would mean everything to me when I'm in a public place with Soren, being brave and feeling out our differences.


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