Martin was ignored yesterday.
The church that we attend now—much more traditional than the young, edgy congregation we left behind in Manhattan—includes a “children’s time” in the service. Children younger than age 10 are invited to gather near the chancel, where the pastor engages them with a few questions and tells a Bible-related story. Martin goes, too. The pastor, to his credit, usually calls Martin by name and addresses him once or twice, even if no response it forthcoming. I can’t say that Martin participates fully in the experience. I can say that he likes being included; he runs forward without hesitation.
Yesterday, the regular pastor was away, so children’s time was headed by a choir member who is also an elementary-school principal. Eight children participated. The principal began by greeting several (not all) of the children other than Martin by name. Then, without making eye contact with Martin or calling his attention in any way, she launched into her lesson. Martin, who is unfocussed and irritable this week (see the reference to nystatin in Saturday’s post), responded by fidgeting, lying on the floor, and turning away from the chancel to face the congregation, wearing a goofy smile. Finally, he stood up and drifted toward the organ, which fascinates him.
The principal probably could have halted 90% of Martin’s behavior by catching his attention and saying, “Martin, let’s sit and listen now,” or even just asking him a question about the Bible lesson.
Instead, she ignored him. Talked to the other children. Pretended like nothing was happening.
From being in the church choir, which sits only a few feet away from the chancel where the children gather, the principal must know that Martin sometimes needs extra help. I suppose that, once she was in charge of the group, she might have thought that I wouldn’t want Martin “called out.” In truth, I’d much rather have him called out briefly by an adult than allowed to call himself out with five minutes of inappropriate behavior. Or maybe she just didn’t know what to do, which would be disappointing in an elementary-school principal. In any event, children’s time was unproductive for Martin and uncomfortable for me.
Which brings me to one of those moments when I realize that Martin’s autism has taught me something without my noticing it.
A dozen years ago, a friend of mine mentioned (I have no recollection of how the subject matter arose) Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson being half-black.
“He is?” I asked. “What’s the other half?”
“Asian Pacific Islander. Why? What did you think he is?”
“I don’t know. A white guy, I guess,” I answered, honestly. “Maybe I never really thought about it.”
My friend, who is African-American, laughed. “I guess it’s good if you’re color-blind,” she said. “But I’m not sure thinking that everyone is ‘a white guy’ is the way to go.”
This morning at church brought that moment to mind. It is tempting to believe that the great equalizer is pretending that we are all the same. We are not the same. A person who is black, who practices Orthodox Judaism, who is male, who has a wife instead of a husband, who is single, who uses a wheelchair, whose English language skills are limited, who lacks formal education, or who [insert any of six billion variations here] does not have the same needs I have. It is not good to be color-blind, or physical-challenge-blind, or hyperactivity-blind, or autism-blind.
When your child has autism, you don’t get to ignore difference. Difference follows you around, speaking too loud and out of turn. It demands your attention. I am far more likely, today, to consider whether any trait, from intelligence to handicap to race, is influencing how an individual perceives his environment. I am far more likely, today, to ask myself what I can do to help.
I no longer act like the best course is pretending we’re all the same.
Lest it seem like church yesterday was a wholly disappointing experience, I am happy to report that other parents in the congregation get it. I was worried about Martin’s antics. As I glanced around I saw no disapprobation, only encouraging expressions ranging from, “Calm down. Martin’s with the other kids and he’s happy,” to, “He might be over there checking out the organ, but, hey, at least he isn’t playing it.”
The principal’s mistake notwithstanding, I think lots of us are marching toward embracing myriad needs.