My introduction to the world of “special needs” children began when Sawyer was three and his preschool teacher told us we might want to have someone from the state have a look at him. A month later my wife and I found ourselves at a table with a group of experts who gently explained to us all that was wrong with Sawyer: He talked to himself instead of other children; he did not respond when his name was called; he spent too much time pretending. On and on.
It was disorienting and disheartening for a number of reasons, perhaps the most profound of which was that all of this attention was focused solely on his behavior. It was perfectly understandable that the experts should do this. Sawyer’s behavior was what teachers and children had to deal with. His behavior was his link to the outside world, his contribution to the life we were all creating. What else was there to consider but his behavior?
Yet all I could think at the time was who among us at this table would want his or her behavior put under such scrutiny? Who at the table of adults who would never be called autistic believed that such scrutiny could tell the whole story of who we were? I recalled a day several years before when I’d brought a friend of mine to the hospital so she could have some stitches removed. While I waited in the lobby, an older gentleman stomped through the sliding doors.
“I’m here to see Lisa,” he told the receptionist. “But I have to tell you I am not happy.”
“I’ll let Lisa know you’re here.”
“The parking in this place is atrocious!” continued the gentleman. “I mean it’s really awful. It’s like you people don’t care at all about where we’re supposed to park. I must have circled for fifteen minutes. That is really atrocious. If you people cared it seems to me you might actually do something about this.”
Lisa soon arrived and shook his hand, but the gentleman wasn’t done. He started in again about the atrocious parking, and how difficult it was for him, and how long he had to look. He wanted to know what brain-dead numbskull dreamt up this scheme. Lisa, meanwhile, nodded and listened, nodded and listened.
By this time, I had concluded this man was a jerk. I can’t stand guys like this, I thought. What’s wrong with him that he has to make everyone’s life miserable just because he couldn’t find a stupid parking space? Welcome to life in the big city, buster. And how can this Lisa woman bear it? Look how patient she is. How does she do it? She must be a saint.
The gentleman’s tirade finally ran out of steam. Lisa nodded once more and touched his arm, “Okay then. Are you ready to start your chemo?”
“Yes,” said the gentleman, and followed her quietly into the hospital.
The biggest difference between three year-old Sawyer and the seventy year-old gentleman was that Sawyer could not yet tell us the story behind his behavior. And so we were left only with our imaginations and need for him to act normally. That is a potent recipe for misguided assistance. I still think of Lisa form time to time and her patient expression while she waited out the storm of the old gentleman’s complaint. What is a saint but someone who knows the story of who we really are and can see through the veil of our behavior? That is the light in which the lie of sin dissolves and we return to who we are.
I am the author of Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write with Confidence, and Write Within Yourself: An Author's Companion. Learn more here.