Friday, December 09, 2005

What Do We Know?

This blog entry is posted in gratitude to Kristina Chew, whose dazzling account of her life with her son Charlie, informed by a keen knowledge of Classical Greece, has accelerated my own thinking about autism and authorship.

Back in late September a friend who had just moved to Texas to take a tenure-track academic appointment came into to town to avoid the advance of Hurricane Rita. She and I were going out to get a coffee and talk about the vicissitudes of new academic jobs (hers) and academic job searches (mine).

Sweet M. wanted to come with us to the coffee place, but as soon as we got there was restless and roaming, even disappearing for a few minutes, ducking into the yarn store next door, giving me that moment of panic—where could she be, where has she gone—that parents know only too well.

This coffee shop idea was not going to work. The weather was fine, so we got our coffee to-go and headed to the grungy playground across the street from the apartment building where we live.

Just before we rounded the gate into the playground, a woman with a large, brown dog walked by. My M. is terrified of dogs. Although we no longer need to cross the street when we encounter someone walking a dog, we still have to navigate to the other side of the sidewalk whenever possible.

But today was different. Today M. just said, “Look Mama, brown dog. Ugly brown dog,” she remarked.

“Yes, honey, it’s a brown dog.”

I am thrilled of course, because not only is she having a bit of conversational interaction—not typical for her—but she’s strung two adjectives together.

The woman walking the dog glares up at me. “You should teach that child some manners.”

I don’t say anything, and we round the bend into the playground and sit down at the chess tables next to the chain link fence that separates the playground from the sidewalk and the dangers of the street beyond.

The woman with the dog does not give up. She approaches us, but she is on the other side of the fence from us now since dogs are not permitted in the playground.

“You know,” she says, with a faintly British accent, “you should really teach that girl some manners.”

“And, you,” I say, “Should grow up.”

“Geez,” my friend says, “It’s amazing what you have to put up with.”

But this is a small social disjunction—it didn’t rise to the level of social catastrophe, such as our airport terminal disaster. But since I have no official diagnosis of autism for M., I have been, until recently, reluctant to just say, “I’m sorry if my child offended you. She has autism, a neurobiological condition that makes navigating the social world more challenging than for most people.” I did not yet know about the informational cards prepared by Autism Link for just this purpose. I had not yet read Kristina Chew’s dazzling blog, with her reflections about being out about being aut.

Yesterday afternoon I was on my way to the post office and the probably British woman with the brown dog—perhaps it is an ugly brown dog, I’m not much on canine aesthetics—was standing on the corner talking with someone.

Buoyed by the response to my talk on Wednesday night, and by the solidarity of the autism mom blogs, I approached her and said, “Excuse me, I just wanted to introduce myself, and apologize. A month or so ago my daughter offended you by calling your dog ugly, and I just wanted to apologize now. My daughter has autism, and I didn’t want to just announce that to you and the world with her there, but I wanted you to know that I didn’t think I handled it very well, and I wished I’d been able to share more with you then.”

“Oh,” she said. “Your daughter didn’t say ugly, she said, she said shitty.”

“Oh, I don’t know, I don’t think so. I don’t think she knows the word shitty. But whatever she said, I’m sorry if she offended you.”

I actually don't know if M. knows the word shitty—I'm inclined to doubt it since that's not one of our favorite household expletives. Back when she was in her echolalic stage we switched to cursing in French—merde alors—just to be on the safe side. This is inconvenient if we're in Quebec, but it leaves me fairly confident that shitty is not in her vocabulary.

“Oh,” she said, “I don't know either. Does your daughter play chess? Miriam here," she gestures to her friend, "teaches chess.” And soon we three are off and running—talking about chess, and autism, and the chess team at M.’s school. Suddenly woman with the brown dog stops, and apologizes. “You know, I’m so sorry, I must have been in an grouchy mood that day. I just didn’t know.”

And how could she, really, when even M’s doctors don’t really know . . . when even I don’t know, five years into this process. We are still searching for a diagnosis, from the Greek dia (through) and gnosis (knowledge). We need more knowledge.

She went on to tell me about her chemotherapy, and how a friend’s learning disabled child had grabbed at her scarf, pulled it away, and then laughed at the bald head that was revealed. She went on to tell me about her own son, with triple-bypass surgery. She went on to tell me her name.

How little we know about each other. But at least she and I are on the same side of the fence now.


kristina said...

I'm dazzled by your too, too kind words about my blog! I've migrated to a new myself in the process.

I've had too many encounters like the one you describe but rarely the chance to end it in peace and conversation, and work from ignorance and annoyance to enlarged understanding--that's part of being on the way to gaining knowledge, perhaps.

MothersVox said...

It's lucky for us that we live in a walking neighborhood where we often see people we'd seen before. I was so happy to be able to talk with this woman about the ugly dog incident because I see her around the neighborhood fairly often.

Also, the friend who was there on the day of said ugly dog incident emailed to tell me that M. definitely didn't say shitty. Her recollection is that M. said "hairy." I guess this blog is teaching me about memory, too.

Anonymous said...

It's amazing what people "remember" isn't it?

I got a phone call from my (ASD) son's new school (he'd been there less than a month) last year. There'd been an issue in the classroom whereby other kids were calling him stupid and refusing to let him participate in the group project he'd been assigned to. The vice principal called to let me know he'd had a melt down in the classroom and told the other kids to "go to hell"

Now, I think I probably would have been tempted to tell them to go to hell if they'd been treating me the way he claims they were treating him (and he's not really good at fabricating lies - he'll omit information from time to time) but the fact is, I'd never heard him tell anyone to "go to hell" before. It really, really didn't sound like him, or like the way I know he uses language and I told the VP so.

She said that she agreed initially, but upon talking to other kids, and telling them that that didn't sound like a word he would use, they said that they'd heard him say: "what the hell" before.

Yep. I had to cop to that one. He does use "what the hell?" I said I could believe that he'd said what the hell? in response to the way he was being treated, because he would probably be confused about it. I explained that it was likely an expression of confusion, rather than aggression (we are fortunate that he seems to have outgrown a lot of his issues with aggression - less fortunate that he's a bit more self-destructive than he used to be).

No dice. Those kids heard him say go to hell, they were scared of him, he was in the wrong. And because he behaved "aggressively" she couldn't call it bullying (even though they started it)

still, this school is better than the last...