“Is she autistic?” the woman asked my mom’s friend as I walked by. I suspected she was talking about me but I held out some small hope that she wasn’t. When my mom’s friend started to reply “She’s my friend Cathy’s daughter and she- ” all doubt was removed. I didn’t hear the rest of what she said because I left the room. I had no desire to listen to people discussing me and my diagnosis right in front of me as if I couldn’t hear or understand them. If they were going to talk about me as if I wasn’t in the room, then I was going to leave the room. I’m lucky that I had the ability to make an exit.
I’m not sure what tipped this woman off. Maybe my mom’s friend had been talking to her about me. Maybe it was my pacing and flapping that did it. The fact that she hadn’t heard me speak probably heightened her perception of me as seriously disabled. People who hear me speak or read my writing first tend to be surprised to find out that I’m disabled in any way. People who see me pacing and flapping first tend to be surprised to hear me speaking in complete sentences.
This isn’t the first time something like this has happened to me. I’ve had people respond to my flapping, pacing and stereotyped movements by asking another adult who’s with me why I’m doing that and if they’re watching me. They ask the other person that question when I’m within earshot and eyesight. I know this kind of thing happens to other disabled people too. This latest incident happened when I was on vacation. No one ever gets a vacation from their disability. It’s with you 24/7.
Too many people seem to think being autistic or being developmentally or physically disabled in some way is synonymous with being deaf or unable to understand verbal communication. When that belief causes them to talk about me as if I’m not there it makes me feel invisible, inferior and dehumanized. It is rude, insensitive and inconsiderate.
I suppose I could have let that woman know that I heard her and understood what she said. I suppose I could have told her she’d hurt my feelings. That may have challenged the notions she had about me and made her think twice about saying something like that in front of someone else she thought was autistic but it would have been embarrassing for all three of us. I prefer to avoid confrontations with strangers whenever possible.
People with special needs, disabilities or differences are by definition different from ‘typical’ people and require some special treatment but they are people as much as anyone else is. There are some needs, characteristics and feelings that are universal across all humanity.
Regardless of their age, status, neurotype, ability or disability, people universally want to be treated with respect. They want to feel heard and seen by others, to be accepted for who they are, to know that they matter.
There are exceptions to every rule and we aren’t always going to know the right way to deal with everyone but when it comes to human interaction the most categorical and fail-safe rule of all is the golden rule. Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. If you wouldn’t want someone talking about you as if you weren’t there when you’re fully present, don’t do that to anyone else.