I balked this morning when the director of my son’s theraputic horseback riding program asked me to walk beside a horse ridden by a child with a disability, It’s not that horses scare me, they don’t. It’s just that I was afraid I couldn’t do what he was asking me to do, at least not safely. My symptoms of Asperger’s syndrome are so subtle that even people who know me well forget that I have this disability.
While my six-year-old autistic son still struggles mightily with language, he has already overcome many of the physical challanges that still frustrate me. Like many people on the autism spectrum, I have poor proprioception. I don’t know where my body is in space. I’m a godawful dancer, which is no big deal in and of itself. That’s true of many non-autistic people too. But the problem runs deeper when even a casual stroll is a challange. I have to look down to see where my feet are going so I don’t fall, which means I can’t often look up to see another person coming towards me, much less a telephone pole. Sometimes I feel like the theme song of George of the Jungle should follow me wherever I go. I’m also not the best judge of distance. It’s difficult for me to tell how near or far I am from objects, people. Or animals. That makes it hard for me to walk alongside a horse not behind, where it could kick me, or ahead where I could scare it into throwing the rider.
Starting to get the picture here? What complicates the situation even more is the panic I feel getting a request I’m afraid I’ll have trouble fulfilling. That’s when my ability to sustain eye contact waivers, and I start to lose language. Asperger’s Syndrome interferes with my ability to read my conversation partner’s facial expression or body language, so I can’t tell for sure, but I assume I look pretty dodgy or at least irritated when I’m in this state. My generally invisible disability becomes detectable.
So today was just another day that ends with a “y” . I was hiding my awkwardness, compensating for my deficits, when someone innocently asked me to do something that seemed pretty straightforward to them, but seemed almost impossible for me. This time though, as I felt my eyes wander around the room and heard my normally fluid speech turn into a stammer, I decided to face my fears. I forced an inelegant but still comprehensible explanation out of my mouth, somehow getting across that I was willing, but possibly not able. Still, I was willing.
The volunteers at Seaside Theraputic Riding offered some suggestions and kept an eye on me. My legs are short so it was hard to keep up, but I managed. And yeah, the multitasking of walking and doing anything else is hard for me so I was quiet, hoping the rider could feel the encouragement that I couldn’t offer in words. My klutzy dance with a patient horse was adequate. Good enough for the staff of the program, for the rider, and for me.
For once I put all of my focus on the task and had none left to hide my struggle with the task, so I must have looked pretty frazzled by the end. No one laughed. though. In fact, the staff kindly offered to excuse me from future rides . At first I couldn’t say anything so I just shook my head violently. Then finally I said “Every day,” and pointed towards my son. After I calmed down enough to catch my breath I finished the thought. “Every day, he has to do difficult things. Me too.” Clumsy words said in earnest. Every day I expect what must initially seem impossible from my autistic son. The very least I can do for him is expect the same from my autistic self.