Laura Townsend Kane is a medical librarian at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine. The youngest of her three sons has autism.
My husband has a special talent for talking to strangers. Correction: he has a talent for encouraging strangers to talk to him.
We’ll be out in public, absorbed in our own little worlds, when suddenly a stranger will approach him with a question, a comment, a request for directions. He has a trustworthy face, I guess. I knew about this phenomenon when I married him, and it still exists today, 24 years later. Here is what’s really cool: this phenomenon has only gotten more pronounced since the arrival of our youngest son, Peter (now age 7).
“Why is this significant?” you might ask. Peter has autism. He is completely nonverbal and uses a high-tech AAC device to communicate. He has lots of behavioral and sensory issues, is never still, and makes lots of noises. He’s mostly a happy little guy (well, not so little at 90 pounds!), and he is happiest at his three “favorite” places – Publix (a grocery store), Target, and Arby’s. Yes, Arby’s.
When out in public, I tend to take a reserved stance and keep my conversations with Peter quiet to the extent that I am able. Ha! My husband, on the other hand, interacts with Peter in a normal speaking voice, just as he would if we were at home. They are natural, completely themselves, and therefore a little bit… um… loud. And amusing. In the grocery story, I do my shopping and leave the two of them to wander the aisles, but I can always find them because I can HEAR them.
So what happens?
Well, people – strangers – simply walk up and start talking to them! No joke. You would think that people would be freaked out by the strange noises Peter makes and by his occasional tantrums, but mostly the opposite is true. Mostly they are curious. They ask about Peter’s “Talker,” they ask about his disability, or they simply strike up a conversation about the weather. No matter what the conversation, I see these interactions as “teachable moments.” Without realizing it, my husband is teaching strangers about autism.
As a result of their vocal and sometimes amusing public interactions, Peter and his Dad have made lots of friends. The “sample guy” at Publix knows Peter by name and always singles him out to give him a High Five. A server at Arby’s once gave Peter a free milkshake, and that same day they met the sister of Lorri Unumb (VP of State Government Affairs at Autism Speaks) and had a chat about autism therapy legislation. On another day, they met a counselor of a special needs camp and learned all about a local summer camp Peter might enjoy. A kind lady at Publix gave Peter a gift card “just because.” A little boy at the pool at the YMCA learned why Peter makes “funny noises,” just because he asked in curiosity. The staff at that same YMCA know Peter by sight and always greet him when he and his Dad head for the pool.
These are just a few of the amazing interactions that have led us to realize that people with autism really ARE welcome in society. Kudos to my husband. While I strive to be an advocate for autism awareness in more formal ways, he is, unwittingly, the true advocate. He doesn’t even realize it. Just by being himself and just by interacting naturally (i.e., loudly) with Peter in public, he is teaching our community about autism. His ability to invite conversations with strangers has morphed into something significant: it is a way of encouraging strangers to become more aware and more accepting of those who have autism within the community.