A month or so back, I was having a friendly chat with a neighbour. He was a nice man, who has only ever been accepting towards our family. He’s seen my son move from a rather severely impacted autistic child, to the rather more mild impact autism has on my son’s life today. My son was with me during the conversation, happily buzzing around in the background in our yard, and the neighbour commented on how well my son appeared to be doing, and then asked “will he ever be normal?”
My brain and my mouth froze. I wanted to scold the man for asking such a loaded question right in front of my son, but I also wanted to act like the question didn’t matter and smooth it over because the more attention I brought to it the more my son would think the question was important. I wanted him to un-say it. I also wanted to lecture him about him assumptions and valuations of normality, but I wasn’t sure how I was meant to package that lecture, or if it was worth the confrontation, because I knew the man’s heart was in the right place even though his wording choice was offensive (and stupid). Eventually I decided to just say my son would always struggle with certain things like social interactions, but that he’d be fine. Which was when the second stomach-punch was delivered.
He asked how the “normal kids” at my son’s school got along with him. Again, my brain felt like it was misfiring. Why did he keep packaging the world into normal versus my son, and why was he more interested in what the normal kids thought than how my son was finding the school? At this point I’d had enough of the conversation and didn’t want to continue to talk to the man in front of my son, so I answered rather dismissively that they were fine with my son, and very deliberately changed the topic.
Since the conversation, I’ve been trying to figure out what I should have said and done differently, if anything. Would it have been a waste of time trying to get this man to understand, when his view of the world was so binary (normal, abnormal, and my son fitting into the latter), is it the sort of conversation you can even have “in passing” with a neighbour? Surely I should have at least attempted it (at the time I was rather shocked and having trouble coming up with an appropriate response). Should I forgive his ignorance and the upset it caused me (and potentially my son), considering his apparent lack of experience or understanding of disability, disability rhetoric, or autism? Are his good intentions and apparent concern, more important than the harm he does with such views? Was I too caught up on the word “normal,” when the man was probably struggling to find the right words for his questions? Should I just be happy he took an interest and asked his questions in the first place?
These questions have been going around in my mind since then, because the conversation and what was said in front of my son still upsets me. I want to keep my son away from this neighbour, to avoid any more such views and rubbish molding his lovely young mind. But should I be actively confronting and correcting the man instead, did I miss a great opportunity, and should I actively pursue the chance to fix the man’s future views?
A friend shared a post with me today, which drove me to write this down. The post was about a mother taking a very open-minded and educational attitude towards annoying and ignorant questions about autism. (I like the post, and it’s worth a read.) So now I find myself thinking out loud about the best way to deal with those brief encounters with people who don’t take an active interest in disability and autism – instead bringing along their prejudices and presumptions – but who do appear to care about my son. I think, as a matter of integrity and the betterment of attitudes towards my son and his peers, that I must be willing to confront people when this happens, but find a way to steer the confrontation away from an expression of my righteous indignation, and towards a genuine learning opportunity. I think this is something I will get better at with time, the more chances I have to explain and express these issues to others in person.
I wish I didn’t know this situation will arise again. I wish I didn’t have to get good at dealing with these things. But I can’t un-wish attitudes, words or conversations; I can work towards changing them though. I must, and I will, I’m just still trying to figure out how.
Facing and dealing with such situations, is becoming my new normal.