In addition to meeting with Nigel’s new case manager last week and doing a walk-through at the high school, we had another reason for going there. Nigel needed to do a dry run of riding his bike to school.
Yes, despite past reactions to insects flying in his face, he wants to do this. And I need to let him. He has a fiercely independent spirit, which I think has served him well and will continue to. We have gone over safety concerns ad nauseam, and I think he’s ready. I have to trust that he can do this.
So, that afternoon on the way to the high school, he rode his bike and I waited a few minutes before following in the car. It’s only a mile to the school, but there are several stop signs and intersections along the way, and his job was to time himself so we would know what time he needs to leave the house in the mornings. I told him to ride at a normal pace, to stop at all the stop signs, and not try to hurry up if I passed him.
I pulled out of our driveway and drove to the first intersection and turned. There, about a hundred yards ahead of me, was Nigel on his bike, gesturing to three teenage girls as he rode past them. It looked like he was either giving them a thumbs-up or pointing ahead in the direction of the high school. I couldn’t tell what he was doing. But after he passed them and continued on, I could tell what they were doing. They were mimicking his gestures in an exaggerated manner. And laughing.
Unfortunately I have witnessed my son being laughed at many times. But because of that, I have learned how to respond in the most results-oriented way. I have lectured other kids, I have spoken angrily to them, I have glared at them. These reactions are instinctive. Of course, as parents, we are angry, we are incensed, at seeing our children disrespected in this manner. We want to lash out and make it right, even if our children weren’t aware of what happened at their expense. But what I have learned over the years is that if I approach the kids in an open, positive manner, most will respond much better than if I approach them with anger.
Nigel was at least 50 yards ahead and didn’t notice me pull up to the three girls. I rolled down my window, smiled, and asked if I could talk to them for a minute. “Do you know that boy on the bike who just rode by?” Two didn’t, one said she had seen him when she was at the middle school two years ago. I continued in a pleasant voice. “Well, I just thought you should know that he has autism, and he’s my son.” I could see a little embarrassment on their faces. “Ohhh,” they said, “he has autism? We didn’t know.” I was glad that they seemed to know what autism was. Years ago, when he was younger, people didn’t. “Yes,” I continued. “Most people don’t realize that, so I wanted to mention that to you. He’s going to be starting at the high school next week, so I just wanted to let you know in case you see him around. Sometimes people with autism have behavior that’s a little different; thanks for understanding.” “Okay,” they all said, and the older girl said, “Thanks for telling us.” I thanked them again and drove off.
I think the one thing people tend not to get (the general public, people not connected into autism issues) is the fact that every single step is uphill. There are no days you get to relax, not worry about it, coast on autopilot. If Nigel is in a public setting…and especially a highly social environment like school…every day requires vigilance, effort…it’s all uphill.
Even when we have successful meetings, when Nigel participates and advocates for himself, we never get to sit back and relax. Every day we contend with people who don’t understand, who might laugh at him, who might egg him on purposefully until he reacts in anger. These incidents will contribute to stress, self-esteem issues, and will definitely affect how well he does in school. It’s a constant battle. All uphill, just like M said.
And that’s why I talk to people every chance I get. It’s not easy for me, being an introvert, but it’s what must be done. That day, I talked to three girls. Three people. A drop in the bucket. But getting those three people on our side might make even a slight difference. And I’ll take it.
A few minutes later, I parked at the school near the bike rack. Nigel soon rode up, dismounted, and began locking his bike on the rack. I walked over. “Did you know those three girls back there?” I asked him. “No,” he said. “But they seemed nice.” “Yes,” I said. “I think they will be.”