It’s World Autism Month. Our whole community can benefit from this advice.
Photos courtesy of Christina Abernethy.
“Don’t look, just walk away.” When I was growing up, these words were said to me many times when people with disabilities would pass by me.
I always wondered why.
Why couldn’t I look at them? Why couldn’t I talk to them? Why were they always in different classrooms and separated from us at school?
I remember getting really excited when I saw a fellow classmate in her wheelchair driving down the hallway and I got to say hi to her. We both smiled and giggled as we went back to our classrooms.
As I grew older, I often think about these moments and reflect on how they made me feel.
Kids are curious. I was curious. I wanted to learn about my peers and be friends with them. I wanted to play with them on the playground and invite them to birthday parties.
But unfortunately, that didn’t happen.
Instead, I grew up around people who were uncomfortable talking about disabilities — a society not willing to accept people who may look or act differently than the stereotypical norms.
Fast-forward to the present day. I’m a proud mom to an autistic child. He’s a strong, happy, full-of-life 11-year-old boy. And although I recognize the progress our world has made over the years with inclusion and acceptance, we still have a really long way to go.
The judgmental stares and hurtful comments still find their way into our lives.
So I’d like to ask you one favor. Please teach your children about kids like mine.
Talk to your children about disabilities. Explain the different ways people may communicate and the unique ways people can act and look different from one another.
Let your kids get curious! Let them ask questions and have open conversations about how we treat everyone with kindness and respect.
Because if we’re not having these conversations at home, our children are growing up uneducated about these extraordinary individuals who work incredibly hard to navigate a world that wasn’t made for them.
And may I recommend a different phrase instead of “Don’t look, just walk away”? Let’s start teaching our kids to share a smile and say “hello.”
As we head into the summer months and everyone is spending lots of time at local playgrounds, I hope you’ll wave and say hello to the child who may not be able to say hello back. Or to the little girl in her pretty pink dress swinging on the wheelchair-accessible swing.
Or to the young boy in a green shirt, with noise reduction headphones on and carrying around his speech device and a big T-Rex dinosaur. Because a friendly smile and saying “hello” gives people a sense of belonging and being accepted for who they truly are.
And there’s no better feeling than that.