18 January 2011

with your smile just as bright as the sun

(Originally posted on Jan. 4, 2011)

“What’s wrong with you?”

I didn’t hear those words yelled in my 5-year-old daughter’s face on New Year’s Eve. I’m not sure how I would have responded to the 7-year-old boy who said them, but maybe I couldn’t have done a better job of simultaneously explaining and defending her than my friend’s daughter, who is a wise and tender 9.

“Don’t be mean to her! She just does her own thing! She’s really cool!”

Hearing this story after the fact, I was close to tears. Because someone was cruel to my child. Because I wasn’t there when it happened. And then because someone championed her, in that sweetly fierce way only another child could have.

First I wanted to cry because someone didn’t understand Em. I was equally undone to realize that someone else did.

Neither was a first, of course. Em has never taken an interest in kids her own age. They share the same spaces, and she navigates around them, intent on whatever activity has captured her interest in that moment.

On New Year’s Eve, it was a ball. She was happily trotting around the basement of a friend’s home, tossing it into the air and retrieving it wherever it fell, chirping, “Ball, ball, BALL! Fwow it!”

A little boy – the hosts’ son – approached and made an effort to engage her. She carried on as if she hadn’t heard him, continuing her game with a smile on her face. He got angry. He got in her face.

“What’s WRONG with you?”

I’d have been tempted to flip the question back to him, I think. Or maybe to haul him upstairs to his parents, and ask them to explain why being different isn’t scary. How we should treat people like people, even if we don’t understand why they do the things they do.

It made me wonder if I should have listened to the instinct that told me not to bother going to the party. I knew it’d be crowded; I knew Em had never been there. So much unknown – I waffled over the decision all day, finally deciding that we’d try.

I was stressed the moment we walked in the door. Within 30 seconds, Em had clambered onto the couch, still wearing her dripping wet boots, unaware of anything besides the new, plush landing pad she’d discovered. I pulled them off her feet and she was off again, with my wary, worried eyes tracking her every move.

More people came, and her activity level seemed to jump with each body that walked through the door. As Em got happier and more hyper, my friend took her daughter downstairs, taking hold of Em’s hand as she went, laughing at the expression on my face.

“Sit down. Relax. I’ll stay with her.”

It takes a lot of trust to relinquish Em’s care to someone else, even momentarily. Even when I’m under the same roof. Even when Em was clearly delighted to follow along and discover the delights of the basement playroom.

If we went back to that house today, she’d remember the basement, and she’d tug my hand until I followed her down the steps. She’d be looking for the ball. She doesn’t remember the confrontation — she wasn’t even an active participant when it happened — and that aspect of her autism is a gift that I’m oddly grateful for, because it allows her to be untouched by that kind of ugliness.

The protective bubble that I sometimes wish I could wrap around her? She already has one.

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