Picture this: It is Summer 2013 and we are strolling along the boardwalk with Angel during a trip to Coney Island. Soon Angel spots two of his favorite things: sand and a playground. “Slide? Slide?” he asked. We could not deprive him, so I took him out to the playground to play. Shortly after, two little boys joined us. One looked like he was seven and the other one looked like he was 10. As autism parents, we have had many adventures with Angel on the playground. Here is what happened this time around.
The seven-year old came up to Angel and asked, “You wanna play?”
Angel continued going up and down the slide.
A few seconds passed and the boy asked again, “You wanna play?”
“Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!” Angel yelled.
The boy had a perplexed look on his face.
“What’s wrong with him? Does he speak English?” he asked me.
My body went cold. “Yes, he speaks English but he did not understand what you asked him.
“What game do you want to play?” I asked.
“Scooby Doo and we need a third person,” the boy answered.
Then he turned to Angel again and asked, “Wanna play?”
Angel ran by him and zoomed down the slide.
The boy went over to his friend and said, “He doesn’t want to play.”
His friend replied, “This is gonna be the most boring trip ever.”
The whole time Angel was smiling and enjoying his time on the slide. He was in his own world.
Honestly, I just wanted this kid to go away. However, he was relentless. He came back—again.
“You wanna play?” he asked Angel.
Angel yelled, “Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.”
The boy turned to me and asked, “Is he deaf?”
“No, he is not deaf. He can hear you,” I said.
It was not my proudest moment as an adult but I was annoyed and it came across in my voice. Before I could say anything else, the boy went over to his friend and repeated that Angel did not want to play with them.
Then I said to him, “It is not that he does not want to play with you.
He does not understand what you are asking him. He has autism.
Do you know what autism is?”
“No,” he replied.
I began to wonder how to explain autism to a seven-year old.
This is what I said: “Autism means that his brain is wired differently from yours. He wants to play with you but he doesn’t know how.”
The whole time I am thinking that my explanation sucked. What if this kid does not understand the concept of a brain being wired differently? How do I explain the social and communication deficits that are associated with autism to a child this young?
The boy looked at me confused and turned to Angel and asked again, “Wanna play?”
Angel ran past him once more and went down the slide. Dejected the kid finally gave up and he and his friend went back to join their family on the boardwalk.
This whole exchange took me on an emotional rollercoaster. It also brought tears to my eyes. Yes my child has autism but he is not defective. Some may say I am in denial but I know very well what autism means for Angel. When I look at him, I see a loving child who wants to play and be social. He just does not know how to fit into the neat little box that others want him to put in. I take comfort in knowing that Angel had a good time that day and he was happy.
In the end, that is all that really matters.