J is for Just Ask
When I sat down every day last year to do this A-Z project, my biggest take away was the candid responses from friends and acquaintances. Many of whom told me they wanted to reach out, but often times they didn’t know what questions were ok to ask. I understand that on a few levels:
- As an inhabitant of this earth, when we see something we don’t understand or is different, we feel compelled to want to know the “why” or the “what happened”. Perhaps its part of the survival instinct. A primitive way to avoid something that is contagious or preventable. So, often times when it’s not thought about and someone approaches me and says, “what’s wrong with him?”, my instinct is to say back “rude people are what’s wrong with him”. When I shift my schema and recognize that even in those awkward moments there is the possibility to make it teachable, I can have a lot more empathy for the individual asking. After all, I am not sure I am that much more comfortable with a stranger asking me a more direct question either. (ie: “why is he making that hooting noise over and over?”) when really I might have absolutely no f-ing idea myself in the moment but I would very much like it to stop. Parents–whether we like it or not, we are the conduit to bridging our children with this society. Many of us are their voices. Even if one person out of 10 who ask are asking to be nosy or rude…if we do not respond as an advocate, we make the assumption that all people who ask in that way are being nosy or rude. So, instead of “mind your own business” or “whats it to you”….try “I think what you meant to ask is that you notice that he can’t talk. This is his speech generating device, would you like to see how it works?” or “My child can understand everything you say and the way you asked that in front of him makes me uncomfortable. There is nothing wrong, but it seems like there is an aspect of his behavior that you would like to know more about. He has Autism and maybe one of us can tell you more”. Pollyanna much? Yes. But the only way we will change the asker’s behavior is by gently alerting them to the problem, offering a solution and giving them a reality check.
- On occasion, people want to ask how they can help. A lot of times people don’t realize we need help. For those of us who have kiddos who don’t have a tremendous amount of trouble in the community, many of us move along to normalize our experiences. I have been told that I give off the air of having everything under control and that I don’t need anything. Part of this is for my kids benefit…no one wants a hot mess of a mom in public. Another part of this is because as my job as a therapist in this close-knit community, I feel like I need to maintain a balance of vulnerability and strength. The hot mess part needs to ride in the back seat and can ask “are we there yet?”. There are other parents whose kids CANNOT safely be in public places. So, you just don’t see those people. Their life behind closed doors is like an invisibility cloak…..they are not getting asked often for those reasons. Frankly, many of us have NO IDEA what to tell you about how you can help. My family comes infrequently enough that to dole out a honey-do list also requires having to walk them through where things are, etc…..which means more work. If there were an emergency, they are not enough of a trained listener to know what he needs if he tells them. When a friend asks if they can watch my kids so we can get out…well, I still haven’t figured out exactly how one explains that you can’t imagine asking them to change a 10 year old’s diaper ….or telling them they probably won’t get to sleep through the night and need to keep one eye open when they are sleeping. Sometimes people ask to help but they just don’t want to do what you do need. Their perception becomes that you are unreasonable or are not taking their help. All can serve as barriers to asking the right questions or giving the right answers for assistance.
- People make assumptions instead of asking at all. Just the other night, a young woman I work with asked me for advice in a situation about a member of her not-for-profit youth group. This teenage girl has Autism and when the entire group is together she tends to get very dramatic and will end her tirade by running out of the room. This young woman sighed and said, “She only does it in big groups. Obviously attention….we are thinking of ways to let her know that maybe this group isn’t a good fit for her. It’s not-for-profit, so we can’t tell her she can’t be part of it.” We discussed the fact that perhaps they were misreading the function of the girl’s behavior. The consequence is what sustains the behavior– if no one is rushing out after her, what is the likelihood that this behavior is to get attention and not escape or something internal due to the stress of being in a large group? She wondered aloud if they should contact the girl’s mother to try to figure it out. I wondered aloud what would happen if they just asked the girl herself, since she is her own expert. Use the time and energy to find out what she needs to be a part of the group in a way that works for her rather than using that energy to figure out a way to help her move on. We cannot help but to look at others using our own lenses. But sometimes our lenses are smudged, are rose colored or even broken. By not asking in this kind of situation, others assume they know what is best.
Lets face it. It’s uncomfortable to ask about people who are different than we are. We may be curious, afraid of coming off as rude or misread other’s cues. We may not want to know the answer, we may not want to change our own ways. We may already have assumptions and think we are right, we may be uncomfortable due to our own scripts about social norms, or frankly, some of us…we may just not care. For those of us being asked, we may be offended, we may be hurt, we may not want to talk about it. We may not know the answer, we may not want to admit to an issue or call attention to it or we may not want to be reminded. We may not want to be rejected. So let’s all agree on something. Asking and telling can suck at the outset. Let’s move past it. Those of us who are Autism Families…we ARE the awareness. How you choose to let that manifest is up to you. In my world, however, if you ask me, I promise to tell you……