A brush with autism

I was at the playground with my children yesterday: the six-year-old Peanut was scootering like a madman and two-year-old Butter was swinging on his tummy. I sat next to the little guy on an empty swing and…just sat.

I hate swinging. Nauseates me and make me feel out of control. I know…you’d never know how treacherous a playground could be for control freaks.

Anyway. I saw, out of the corner of my eye, a boy walking too close to another swing and a woman calling him.

“Roland! Roland! Too close. Roland, back up.” He was miming pushing the swing where a teenage girl was going about as high as the swing allowed. Each time the swing got near him, he got as close as he could without touching.

“Roland! You can’t push the swing! Roland!” He didn’t change his motions at all.

“Roland! You can’t push the swing. You didn’t ask her.” He moved back at this. And I stopped watching, convinced he was now safe.

“Why don’t you push someone who would say yes? Let’s ask someone. Let’s ask a mommy.”

I braced my stomach. I knew I’d be asked. I knew I’d say yes. And I didn’t want to puke if he pushed me high.

Roland walked beside me and looked away. “Ask her.”

“Mommy,” he said to me.

“Do you want to push the swing? I would like that,” I said.

So he carefully, and slowly, climbed on my lap facing me.

It was clear the woman who suggested asking me did not intend that. She started sputtering “Roland, let’s push the swing. Roland, that’s not….Roland, you can’t…”

“I don’t mind,” I said to her as I checked to make sure Butterbean was still swinging. I looked into Roland’s eyes, which were searching my face. “Are we swinging? Swinging is nice.” Roland is almost ten years old and weighed so much that I had to keep my toes on the ground as I rocked us back and forth. “Swinging,” I smiled. He kept looking at me. I looked back.

“Roland, why don’t you push her. Get down and go around and push her swing. Get down, Roland.” He paused to process that request, then did as she asked. And walked around behind me.

He stood, trying to get his hands right. He moved my hands on the swing’s chains first up, then down. He got just the grip he wanted. And he leaned against me. Then kissed me on the head. Four times.

It felt like pure love.

And the woman, his nanny, spent a while telling him why he couldn’t kiss my head.

But he can. Anyone else would have gotten an earful about boundaries and acceptable behavior. But in my book Roland gets to have different boundaries and has my permission to kiss my head.

I have no idea what the caregivers and parents of differently developing children go through. Not at all. I can’t imagine what childhood, puberty, and adulthood mean for the caregivers of children living with autism, Down’s syndrome, and other developmental differences. (And obviously I haven’t the faintest notion what it feels like to the people inside those very broad and sometimes limiting labels.) But I do know enough about autism to know that I was very, very lucky that Roland knew what he liked and could express his joy. I’m lucky Roland knew about “yay” and about “thank you” and about kissing. I’m lucky Roland made eye contact with me.

Roland wasn’t inappropriate. He was glad we got to swing. He was glad he heard “yes.” He was enjoying the day. And he told me that the way he knows people say “yay.” He kissed my head.

That was hard for his caregiver, because that’s not what people are supposed to do. Her job is to tell him “no, we don’t do that. You’re not supposed to kiss a stranger when they’re nice. Kissing is too much for a thank you.” I know she chose a mommy for him to push because other kids don’t understand and aren’t used to making accommodations. Moms are expert in accommodating.

I wish Roland never had to hear that kissing is too much for a thank you. My wish is that the whole world decides, effective immediately, to cut people with differences some slack. Empathize, understand, appreciate. If someone is too physical because they have processing or sensory or developmental needs you don’t understand, let go of your personal space boundaries for a minute and accept their physical version of a polite conversation. If someone who has trouble with eye contact won’t look at you, for heaven’s sake, dismiss your social mandates for a while and talk with them on their terms. If someone who doesn’t understand the rules of society gets too close or touches your car or talks too loudly or smiles inappropriately, just relax a bit and meet them on their level. Have some compassion, world.


My wish is that we all learn a bit more, and empathize a bit more, so people like Roland can have nice days at the park.

Because I would never speak for Roland, but I had a damned fine day at the park.