Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Difference between them and us

A few weeks ago, we went to Mass and I told the kids that I wanted them to participate in church by singing their hearts to Jesus. Max took that seriously. He sang his heart to Jesus. Quite loudly.

I've got to admit, I was embarrassed. Not only did he sing louder than anyone else, he also sang at times when he wasn't supposed to sing. I tried nudging him with my elbow to get him to quiet down a bit and he began to hit his head in frustration--his way of telling me "You told me to sing, now I'm singing! Now you want me to stop??"   So I let him sing. But when the cantor began a solo of Ave Maria and Max joined in, making up some of the words he didn't know, I couldn't stand the humiliation. It wasn't that Max was singing so loud that was humiliating. It was a family in front of me who smirked and outright laughed at his singing. The Dad was loudly clearing his throat, the little boy was turning around and staring at Max, the oldest son was making gestures to his sisters about Max, who were also laughing. This is why I was mortified. They just made a hard situation so much worse.

I closed my eyes and tried hard to focus on the fact that Max was singing for Jesus. He was doing what I told him to do. But I could not block out the giggles and laughter that came with it. I was livid with anger.

 The next day, I woke up and remembered the evening before and cried. I cried off and on throughout the day. I wasn't sure why it was bothering me so much. Max didn't even know that he was being laughed at. I was sure that the family truly didn't mean any harm but my anger wouldn't let me justify their behavior. I just couldn't get past the hurt.

The next week, I avoided the family by going to a different Mass at a different church. (The church I go to is very small and we always end up sitting behind this family, whether we want to or not.) I encouraged Max to sing again, praising him for singing to Jesus, but I also added that he shouldn't sing so loud. Mind you, I did this out of love. If I allowed him to think this was socially acceptable, he will continue to do it and he will continue to be laughed at. The world is not a friendly place. It's not always an understanding place, especially with autism. And let's face it, it's cute to sing loudly when you're young and cute, but Max is getting older every year, and pretty soon it won't be looked at as cute but just weird.

I eventually got over my anger but the hurt continued. I ended up seeing the mom from the family at another church function, who approached me about Max's singing, praising him for his singing voice. "You should encourage him to sing" she said.   But I couldn't say anything to her. I realized this was her way of apologizing and I can say that I was able to forgive. But I couldn't say to her what was really bothering me deep down inside, because I still couldn't figure out what it was. I just smiled at her and thanked her.

The other day, I went to Max's Spring Concert. I can say quite proudly that he sang so loud that I could pick out his voice easily within the choir of students. He sang with joy. It reminded me of what happened that Saturday evening at Mass and the hurt came back. But this time, I also felt pride. I was proud of Max singing loudly. He sang with his heart. And at the end of the song, he pounded on his heart three times--a sign that meant he sang with all he had.

I have watched the video that I took of him singing with his class over and over. I have sang along, memorizing the words, watching his face. Each time, it brings me joy. And then suddenly, I understood what it was that hurt.

My son doesn't see what other people see. He doesn't see the difference. He doesn't see that he is different from us. When he sees others, he only sees a good person. He doesn't see their faults, or their quirkiness or their plain faces. He doesn't see weight gain, or skin color. He doesn't see what we see. He doesn't judge.

But that night, people made me see what they see. That Saturday night, I saw autism. And it hurt so bad. I saw Max from other people's perspectives. I saw him as too loud, weird, and socially inappropriate. I sat there cringing, waiting for the song to be over so that he would stop singing, just for another one to begin. I would moan inside, thinking and praying, "God, not another one!" as Max would belt out another tune. I was angry at those people for laughing at Max. But I was even angrier at them for making me see what they see.

I thank God for Max's Spring Concert. God put things back in proper perspective; he helped me to see Max's loud singing for what it really is. He is simple and joyful and loves to sing. And he belted out every tune with gusto. He made the other kids look boring and reserved. I honestly do mean that--they lack the joy that Max has. They didn't smile or sing with gusto. But the difference is that Max doesn't see them that way. The difference is that he would never laugh and point at someone for being different. He doesn't know what "different" is. He is just too simple for that. He just accepts everyone for who they are and where they are in life. And the most ironic thing about it, is that this kid who has an IQ way below average, understands something that others don't. This kid with a "disability" understands what it means to love your neighbor.

People who know Max--therapists and teachers and even the kids in his class--love Max. They love him because he is so loving. What they can't get from others in their life, they get from Max. It feels so good to hear this from others. It feels so good to know that they see what I see. It feels good that we all see autism the same way, at the same time.

Today, Max had an evaluation from the County for a routine screening of his autism to make sure he still qualifies for State services. When the Assessor asked me what Max's strengths are, I told her that he is gentle, kind, and compassionate. She said to me, "I noticed that when he left, he said to me that he enjoyed talking to me. That's wonderful that he's learning those social cues."

I smiled at her and said, "He wasn't trying to practice social skills. He just didn't want to leave without saying good-bye. He was afraid to hurt your feelings so he wanted you to know he enjoyed seeing you. Most people say goodbye out of politeness, but Max will genuinely tell you he enjoyed seeing them. And he means it."

That is the difference between them and us. They see it all as black and white. There is no questioning shades of gray. And quite frankly, I much rather see it their way.


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