When you look into the mirror what kind of person do you see? Is the person looking back an advocate for the disadvantaged? Does the person reflect a spirit of acceptance and empathy for our challenged
population? How do you normally treat people who are different from you? If you were standing on a crowded bus and there was one seat available, would you offer it to an elderly person? If a 14-year old boy afflicted with Downs Syndrome, Autism, Muscular Dystrophy or another form of disability approached you how would you react? How would you respond if a homeless person came to your restaurant and wanted to purchase a sandwich but did not have enough money?
Being a mother of child with Autism gives me enough insight to know what it is to be different. Having a son with a disability has increased my sensitivity to people who are undeniably rejected by society because they seem different. My youngest son, who is Autistic, taught me a lot about patience, resilience, and the definition of "normal."
I had a traumatizing encounter with my son’s first grade teacher. She primarily referred to the more challenging students in her class as "the problem children." She did not try to conceal her reservations about
her students nor did she treat them with compassion. There was a student who we will call Robert, who was relegated to the back of the classroom. He spent most of the time rocking his body back and forth in his seat and showed very little expression. Once in a while, the teacher would put a piece of composition paper on his desk and try to get him to clutch the pencil but he didn’t respond, and with impatience she walked away. By no means do I consider myself a medical professional, but it was obvious that isolating Robert in the back of the classroom was not effective. The teacher’s overall attitude and lack of sympathy seemed uncharacteristic of a teacher, especially for the first grade. Little did I know that I would again experience another example of insensitivity.
This time my son was 14 years old and it occurred at a local gym where I took him regularly after school. My son would remain in the waiting room and watch me exercise from the glass window. He loved listening to the music and watching me exercise. He would chant "go mom!" as long as the music was playing. There was another woman who was apparently exercising in the background, but I didn’t pay any attention to her. When I was preparing to leave, the manager came over to me and told me that one of the women at the gym felt uncomfortable with my son’s presence. She suggested that my son was staring at her and should not be allowed inside the gym since men are prohibited from the premises. It was evident that this woman acted on her own prejudice and ignorance, especially since my son did not pose a threat to her.
Over the years I’ve had to educate teachers and other children about Autism. I felt the need to help them look beyond his disability and realize that people with Autism and any other challenge deserve the same rights and respect as anyone else. My son is now 18 years old. He is a wonderful young man who has had a difficult journey while showing others love and genuine kindness. He’s taught me to look beyond differences and to exercise patience when all else fails. There’s a remarkable sense of resilience that I’ve found over the years from watching him grow and mature. My son has allowed me to look into the mirror and ask “What is normal about the society we live in anyway?” We are all imperfect beings and that’s what it is to be “normal.”
You will be judged by the way you treat the least among you. —Anonymous
Dawn O’Bryan, St. Croix