Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Redeemability of Humanity

I saw this story going around Facebook yesterday.  I thought it was an awesome, feel-good story (and it's somewhat local to me - I know exactly where this Midvale Chili's is).  But I was surprised this morning when I saw that The Blaze and Good Morning America picked it up!  Basically, a little girl who has autism went out to eat with her older sister.  When the waitress brought the girl her cheeseburger, it had been cut in half.  The girl thought her cheeseburger was "broken" and wouldn't eat it (you have to be very direct and upfront about what you're doing when you're dealing with an autistic person.  They cling on to routine and expectations and they can get upset if their routine is changed without them knowing).  The sister asked the waitress if they could get another cheeseburger and she would happily pay for it.  But instead of treating them like That Stupid Customer Who is Never Satisfied, the waitress very kindly apologized for bringing the girl a "broken" cheeseburger and told her she would bring her another one.  Even the manager came out to apologize and offered her some french fries while they were waiting.  The older sister was very grateful for the kindness of the Chili's staff that she posted the story on Chili's Facebook page to thank them and it's gone viral.

I don't know as much about autism as I'd like to.  My dad's cousin has a son who is autistic (they come out to the ranch sometimes and this boy can't get enough of the tractors and heavy machinery.  Horses? Cows? Sheep? Wide open landscapes? Pfft! Let him get under the hood of a John Deere backhoe and he's happy as a clam).  At one point, we thought my youngest sister was on the autism spectrum and that led me to learn more about it.  It turned out that she doesn't have "autism" specifically - I'm not entirely sure what she has, if anything (it's very similar to autism, but not Aspberger's - that was the first thing they thought of, but it turned out not to be that either. But we've all figured out how to work with her and she's probably the happiest out of us all. I love that kid).  That's about as far as my experience with autism goes and I wish I knew and understood more.

Some months ago, I got to help one of the librarians in the system with a Sensory Story Time geared toward autistic kids.  I'd heard about her program at ULA and I told her I was interested in what she was doing and she asked if I'd like to come help her out one day with her program.  I was a little nervous about it because I do know there are certain things you have to be mindful of with autistic kids and some of the kids that come to her programs are on the severe end of the spectrum and I'd never had experience with anyone like that.  I didn't want to say or do the wrong thing, but I'd also heard stories of families with autistic children who were treated poorly by others because their child had an episode in public and people told them they were bad parents or whatever.  But the program - as my colleague said - was to help autistic kids have a good library experience and also to give the parents a place where there were other parents and adult who understood the things they went through with their children.

Thing is about autism is that a person on the spectrum doesn't look any different that anyone else.  I don't want to say something wrong here (and if I do, I apologize - I'm still learning), but for example, if a person has Down's syndrome, you can tell by looking at them.  But autistic people don't have anything visual cues that let other people know they have autism.  And if you're in a restaurant or a store and an autistic child is having a meltdown, the general masses typically see a spoiled, unruly child and parents that can't be bothered to control said child (to my great shame, I've even caught myself thinking "Can't you people shut that kid up?" before I realize that there might be something else going on there and cut the parents a break.  I've never wanted to publicly berate someone for their child, but then again, I've never stepped up to help someone out.  I just wouldn't know what to do and I'm too afraid of making a mistake and making things worse).

I'm not a really good spokesperson for autism, but I want to know and understand better.  Maybe it's because I have a little history of autism in my family (though, my dad's cousin's son is kind of a stretch), I really don't know.  It's kind of hard for me to do this because I feel like I'm infringing on something that I don't have a lot of experience with and there are people for whom this hits home more than it does me (*checks grammar of previous sentence* yeah, I think that's right).  Besides, there are so many different kinds of autism that just because I know of one person with autism, doesn't mean I know how all people with autism are.  But I do know that the autistic people I've known have been very sweet and very special.  There's a certain sense of joy and innocence about them that I just love.  If you take the time to look beyond "Oh, there's that goofy kid that says really weird and inappropriate stuff and we ought to muzzle people like that" (or whatever it is that insensitive people say), you're going to find that joy and innocence.  And you will be better for it.

What I've really hated lately is how focused everyone is on finding mistakes in others.  I mean, there's a line between calling someone out for being a complete jackass and purposely looking for someone's silly slip-up just for the sake of having something to gossip about.  But the story about the little girl at Chili's and her broken cheeseburger and the kindness of the wait staff - that just warmed my heart and made me feel better about humanity (moreover, that major media outlets picked up on the story and actually gave it air time and server space when they could have rehashed some idiotic controversy that's already been beaten to death).  It's probably not going to matter much in the grand scheme of nations and world conflicts and great divisions in opinion and what-have-you - but then again, maybe it really will.

And if you do happen upon a family with an (possibly) autistic child having a meltdown in a public place, cut them a break.  Encourage those around you to do the same.  Help out if you can.  Kindness goes a long way, folks.

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