I’ve been at my new job for nearly two months now. That means I’ve had two months to get comfortable with my new coworkers (and students, for that matter), and two months to start getting to know each other. I work in one of the biggest divisions on our campus, so I’ve got a lot of people to get to know. Needless to say, I've been through a lot more introductions than usual lately.
You know how when you’re a part of something new to you (new job, department, club/organization, circle of friends, family… whatever) there’s always the polite chit-chat of getting to know each other? “Oh, where do you work? Are you married? What does your spouse do? Do you have any kids/ how old?” You know... the frequently awkward but socially necessary polite conversations where we size each other up and decide whether or not we want to be their besties for life? No? Just me?
Okay… well, even if you’re not deciding who to plan hypothetical friend weekends (that will never happen even if you DO end up as BFF’s) with, I’m confident we’ve all either been a part of or witnessed these conversations. So far I’ve learned that I have a coworker who is getting married next year, another coworker who frequently burns half of the cookies she bakes, and still another who has six times as many kids as I can ever imagine having (for the record: I can only imagine ever having one child… My imagination can seriously kick ass, but somehow the thought of having more than Nolan, Kirk and some cats in my household makes my brain short circuit… In related news, Kirk apparently never has to worry about me revealing I’m poly-amorous either).
So over the course of these discussions, sometimes I’ll mention Nolan’s autism. More often, though, I wait until it comes up more naturally in conversation. It’s not that I’m trying to hide the fact that Nolan is autistic so much as that it just feels awkward… Somehow introducing the idea of my child as, “Nolan is 15—he has autism,” seems akin to, “Suzy is 12—she has a birthmark on her left shoulder.” Sure, it’s a part of who he is, but does it matter at that point in the getting-to-know-you process? Not really. And, in the same way that Suzy is defined by more than a birthmark, Nolan is defined by more than his autism.
Plus, having these conversations is awkward enough without adding people’s reactions to the fact that he leads a drastically different life from neurotypical people. That reaction can vary greatly… A lot of people apologize (seriously—my kid is awesome… you have nothing to apologize about). Some people even get a little bit dramatic about it—and that still just weirds me out. Still others ask questions which I usually appreciate, but sometimes those get weird (that’s another post for another time)… But here’s a tip if you ever find yourself in that situation: You don’t have to react at all. Like, “Okay,” is totally acceptable.
Anyway, this past week, I found myself in a situation where a coworker saw the pictures I have of Nolan on my desk. She said she liked his headphones and asked what he’s listening to. This time, instead of jumping into, “Oh, Nolan has autism, and he wears the headphones because his hearing is extra sensitive…” I just explained that he’s not listening to anything, but that they just deaden the sounds around him some. My assumption was that eventually we’d get back around to the autism, but we got distracted along the way. So at this point, I have no idea what she thinks.
But it occurred to me that as much as I want autism to be a normal, everyday thing, the fact that I point out Nolan’s at all could be counterproductive. I mean, sure… we’re not to a point where most people are going to recognize that someone may not be neurotypical (and not be weird about it) at this point in history, but I like to hope someday we’ll get there. If I’m introducing people to the idea of Nolan as anything other than just a normal everyday part of the world we live in, am I working against that goal?
I’m hoping she (along with everyone, really) will see Nolan as a person first and foremost. Yeah, autism is a part of that, but even before that he’s a pretty typical teenager. He pushes us away when we hover too much. He rolls his eyes at us and complains loudly in our general direction. And he goes to a public high school where he even plays sports.
The eye roll is strong with this one... Clearly he did not appreciate Kirk's dad joke.
I mean, obviously our lives aren’t exactly typical… But for now if you want to know about my Nolan, I’ll tell you that he’s amazing. He works harder than anyone I’ve ever met. He loves music and road trips. And he’s a giant flirt. And, sure… he’s autistic.