The Kind of Autism Stories We Should Be Telling…

If I were to log onto my personal facebook right now, not only would this story be trending…no less than 30 friends would have shared it to my timeline or tagged me in it.

I am used to being tagged in every single autism story in the news. The good, the bad and the ugly. I have gotten to the point where I simply delete the tag, ignore the post and move on. 99 times out of 100 I have seen it already. Perhaps the most difficult stories shared with me are not the ones about abusive teachers nor murderous parents, but the ones about savants. You know what savants are, right? Think Rain Man.

When the Night of Too Many Stars first aired it featured Jodi DiPiazza playing the piano and singing Firework with Katy Perry. A bio aired just before it that hinged on early intervention therapies and the progress DiPiazza had made. It is true that EI services are terribly necessary and valuable services, but that viral clip created the very incorrect assumption in the minds of many of my friends and family that DiPiazza’s story and progress were typical across the autism spectrum. Nothing could be further from the truth.

While early intervention does show progress virtually across the board, it does not always produce those kinds of results. And her prodigy abilities in music…those are extremely atypical. But that didn’t stop close to 50 people sharing it with me with comments that ranged from, “Look, Shelby will be able to do this someday!” to “what a shame Shelby didn’t get any early interventions! She could have been like this.” The sting has worn a little from those comments, but it still hurts. Not only did my child get early intervention starting at the same time DiPiazza did, she will never have prodigy like musical skills. Nor will she recreate the NY skyline after flying over it just one time.

So when I saw that a cake decorated by a Meijer employee with autism was trending on news sites, I almost didn’t click it for fear that it would be another savant artist in the medium of cake decorating. Then I did click and my heart sank even more when I saw the image of the cake with “Happy Birthday Mandy” scrawled on it in gel. For sure the customer who shared it was going to ridicule the employee and lambast Meijer for hiring her. And for whatever reason, I scrolled down and read.

The absolute kindness that Ms Aldrich showed and her insistence even before finding out the employee with autism wasn’t a bakery worker and wasn’t supposed to decorate cakes or even had autism was breathtaking. Where many (and I work in a grocery store so I see it in real life) would have pitched a fit, she had compassion and even found the cake itself humorous.

This is the kind of autism story we need to share. The stories of how the imperfections are clear, but the kindness and generosity of spirit shine through. This was a story of a woman of limited ability doing something to the best of her ability. And where many, heck most, would have been annoyed or angry, someone showed charity.

Shelby and I had an experience like this just before Thanksgiving. I went to the credit union to open an account and was forced to bring her with me. For Shelby, she sat reasonably well next to me in the customer service representative’s office. She was fidgety and bouncy and noisy. In fact in similar situations with the kids before, I was berated and told to control my child(ren) and that I was the embodiment of the problem with parents today because my kids aren’t miniature adults. Instead, the customer service rep complimented Shelby’s behavior and engaged her. When I mentioned autism in the conversation and Shelby’s inability to speak she said, “Well, she certainly can communicate! She just has her own way and it works just fine for her.” This woman wasn’t just saying the right things, she meant them. She saw that my child, even before knowing she had autism, was doing the best she could in the situation at hand she didn’t react in pity but kindness. She also didn’t ask what her special skill was.

The stories about positive every day interactions with individuals on the autism spectrum are so important for people to hear not only so they do not fear those with ASD but also so they can realize ASD individuals are more like us than we think. There is no need for pity.  More of us will be interacting with autistic individuals sooner than we think and these types of stories help teach all of us about the possibilities in these encounters.

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