Any trip with Harrison out into the public domain — like the grocery store, for example — is likely to turn into an adventure in neurodiversity. I view these sometimes uncomfortable experiences as almost a civic duty in the effort to educate the public about autism.
On one recent excursion to the Natural Grocers in Pueblo, a worker handed him a remote control for a giant inflatable flying fish. Thankfully, no glass containers were knocked off top shelves, and, even more remarkable, he did not protest when asked to give the remote back.
Another Sunday afternoon visit to the same store provided a much more thought-provoking experience. It was crowded and I was distractedly stuffing produce into sacks while also doing my best to keep my eyes on Harrison. Suddenly I saw him zeroing in on a girl, probably about his own age. He looked over at me and said, “Is it Lilly?”
Lilly is a girl he met at respite care and is confined to a wheelchair with cerebral palsy. She has a habit of biting people, but she has never bitten Harrison.
This girl actually looked a little like Lilly but was clearly walking on her own. I told him, no, that’s not Lilly, but before I was done replying he had walked right up to the girl’s father and asked very loudly, “Is she severely autistic?”
This all happened so quickly I didn’t even have time to drop the vegetables in the cart and intervene.
The dad turned with a huge beaming smile and said, “Why, yes, she is!”
The girl was sort of hiding behind her dad, and I wondered if she were shying from Harrison or from the social situation. It seemed the entire store was now an audience to this strange interaction between two children on the autism spectrum, which I view as circular and multi-dimensional rather than linear.
Next Harrison blurted out. “Does she talk?”
“No, not a word!” said the dad, still smiling. I thought he handled the entire episode quite kindly and with a good sense of humor. I took note that he was wearing T-shirt emblazoned with what appeared to be a marijuana leaf.
The produce section seemed strangely silent, as if all the other shoppers were uncomfortable with this exchange. One woman who previously seemed to be giving me unkind glances now had a look of horror on her face, like she suddenly realized Harrison wasn’t just a spoiled brat and she didn’t know how to process any of what was happening. I’m sure she just was there for last-minute goodies before the big game and the thought of actually having to think was a huge inconvenience.
I don’t mean to be rude, but I know I push the comfort zone with a lot of people when I bring Harrison out, just as I also push my own. I view this as a good thing — people should get rocked out of their sheltered existences every now and then at stores, restaurants, coffee shops, wherever. This is part of the reason I don’t hide Harrison from society — it does nobody any good to pretend kids like him don’t exist, or to keep them locked up in home arrest.
However, one thing did bother me about this exchange — I didn’t know how this little girl felt about Harrison so loudly drawing attention to her in a public place. I recalled flashbacks of other similar social awareness mishaps. In fact he seems to have radar for anyone who is different . . . Harrison asking a woman how she lost her leg . . . Harrison asking a little person why she was so small . . . Harrison asking a local woman about her tracheotomy . . . Harrison asking an uncle if he were pregnant (actually funny) . . .
By far the worst of these was at one of his cross-country meets this past fall when he zoomed in on a young girl’s prosthetic foot, a scene described in more detail in my book Endurance and Selected Essays on Autism, Neurodiversity and Deep Sport. Once again this happened so fast that it was over before I could assess what was even going on. Harrison asked about her foot in a less-than-delicate manner, and the girl clearly interpreted it as teasing and was upset. I felt awful.
But this was much different than this most recent episode at Natural Grocers as this time the girl was also autistic. Obviously Harrison knows he is autistic, and has no problem himself standing out from the crowd or being different. He really does not much care what other people think.
I wondered about this little girl. Was she embarrassed? Did she feel put on the spot?
Should I feel badly about this, or was this merely collateral damage in my personal crusade to raise awareness about autism and neurodiversity?
Or was her social awareness more like Harrison’s?
Of course I used this as a “teachable moment” to explain to Harrison that when he notices something different about a person it’s not polite to bring it up or ask about it in a public situation. That’s about all I could do.
Sharing these experiences in neurodiversity with the general public really is a civic duty, and also helpful in the social development of a child with autism.
It’s also risky business when you care about other people’s feelings. Another precarious step on this journey that has no tour guide or topo map.