My mom worked in a group home for the physically and mentally handicapped when I was young. She took care of her clients and loved each one as if they were all her own relatives. I came to work with her a few times, or was at least in the building. I was under the age of seven, so my memory there is more than a little sketchy. However, the one thing that I remember is her telling me that people are not conditions.
“Melissa, you need to know that people are people and what they have, or live with, does not make them who they are.”
I made a friend, whom I’ll name Norman. Norman was born a neuro-normal child. He was placed in a state home as a child and his neurological development was stunted. I remember meeting him and he liked children. He didn’t like all adults, which I now completely understand, but he latched onto my mom. I think it was because she saw him.
My mom eventually stopped working at the care facility, and I don’t know what happened to Norman. If I did know, I have forgotten, which embarrasses me a little to admit.
She still has a photo of the two of them on the refrigerator.
April is a lot of things for me. It indicates the end of winter semester. My birthday falls at the end of the month. Spring usually sticks around for a nice visit before leading into summer. April is also National Poetry Month, National Child Abuse Prevention Month, and Autism Awareness Month, among many others.
Today, while I was checking out at a store, I was asked if I wanted to donate to Autism Speaks. The man working was really trying to sell me on the benefits of donating to Autism Speaks, and from behind me, I heard a voice say, “I am autistic.” I couldn’t see this person yet, but I admit that I was a little surprised at what he said because it flew in the face of the way I address people.
I finished my transaction and turned around to see the young man that had spoken. I saw an older teenager sporting a hoodie naming a school where I once taught.
I said, “are you going to Mott now?” He told me that he was and all about his degree program. I told him that I used to teach at his school. He was excited to tell me about his classes, even naming off all his current instructors. I asked, and he told me about his future career ambitions.
They sound amazing. This young man has an imagination that I would have liked to bottle.
I asked him what his ultimate career goal was and he replied, “I want to work for Disney.”
My teacher brain lit up. I knew something about this!
“You should check out Disney internships!”
His eyes got big. “They have them?” To which I replied, “yes! They do! I have to admit that I am not an expert, but I do know that they are out there. I imagine that you would love it. I want to do it but I kinda can’t now.” He laughed, and I understood that he understood my self-deprecating, “I’m old now”, humor.
We ended our conversation and I wished him good luck with the rest of his college career. He told me to have fun teaching.
I truly enjoyed meeting this young man today. He was friendly and excited to talk about his future, which is, of course appealing to me. Preparing young people to achieve their dreams is what I live for!
I left wondering why he identified as his disorder, and I know how an individual identifies himself or herself is completely up to the individual. Yet, he as the first person I’ve ever met to identify as his disorder (And I hate that it is called a disorder, but I did check before using that word.). I’ve always been taught not to do that! People are people, no matter what. You don’t go around introducing someone by saying, “Hi, this is Bob, he’s HIV”, and I’ve never heard, “Hi, I’m Jane, and I am Rheumatoid Arthritis.”
If I could tell this young man a few more things, this is what I would say.
You are a bright, charismatic, energetic, engaging, young man. I hope every single one of your dreams comes true. You, good sir, aren’t autism. Autism is something you live with. Plain and simple. We all have something that we live with, but we are all more than whatever our individual disorders are.
(And don’t pretend you don’t have one. You do. We all do.)
I hope the young man I met today knows these things about himself. From all outward appearances, he seems quite self-assured, so I imagine that he does.
But what leaves me thinking now is why awareness month? Why one month to pay attention to something that impacts so many lives on a daily basis? I won’t pretend to know much, if anything of substance, about the Autism Spectrum, because I don’t. I know a few people that are directly impacted, but their children are just kids to me. Like everyone else.
My mom’s words: “people are people. They are not what they have, or live with, and those things don’t make them who they are.”
There is so much wrong in this world, and I imagine more wrong will come. Why contribute to it?
It’s wrong to identify someone as something that they have or live with.
Have compassion. For Pete’s sake! It’s free. We’re born with it but love to leave it behind somewhere. Find it. It has GPS.
Talk to people. Engage with them. Learn their stories.
Take the time to be a person. And treat people like people. At the end of the day, arbitrary things, even medical conditions, add up to what? Nothing. Those things tell us very little about who a person is.
We are all more than the things we openly identify.
This piece is dedicated to my friend: M.I., whom I admire and love with all my heart, and her son. Both you, and your boy, are extraordinary.