A Guest Post by Valerie Hodges
Do certain behaviors deserve the term “inexcusable”? This past Friday, while waiting for my son’s school to get out we had a playground incident. As a mother who loves both my boys I would advocate for either one of them whenever I see the need, and it’s become clear to me that I need to increase awareness among the parenting community about autism. Mainly, I would like to share several important facts:
“Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a complex developmental disability; signs typically appear during early childhood and affect a person’s ability to communicate, and interact with others.” 1
“About 1 in 68 children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) according to estimates from CDC’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) Network.” 2
There are many signs and symptoms of ASD, but for the purpose of this letter I would like to focus on the fact that some persons with ASD do “not understand personal space boundaries,” and also may have “delayed speech and language skills.” 3
Definition of inexcusable – ”impossible to excuse or justify.” 4
I have two special boys that are one year apart in age. One of my sons attends a typical local school. However, my youngest son has a disability called Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD for short. He goes to a different school where he and his 10 classmates learn and grow in a caring and inclusive environment. One where “mainstreaming” with “typical” children is encouraged to promote social growth, establish and foster new friendships, and prepare them for their future in this tough world. My 6 year old who has ASD is non-verbal, meaning at this time he cannot speak his needs, wants, or thoughts, nor does he respond to most verbal instructions. He does not heed or realize his lack of social graces. He requires constant supervision for his safety. He also is joyous and life loving, with an unencumbered disposition (a majority of the time), and a generous smile. His unabashed laugh never fails to lift my spirit.
On Friday, before school was out, my son with ASD and I arrived at the playground waiting for his older brother to be dismissed. My son immediately ran to the play structure ladder and began climbing up so he could go down the slide. As he does not yet have the ability to say “excuse me,” I gently asked the woman who was blocking his assent (focused on her smartphone) if she could let my son pass as she was blocking the ladder. She kindly got off the ladder and my son proceeded to climb up with great excitement. Within seconds he was on the enclosed bridge ready to cross the expanse. However, a little girl, just a toddler, who appeared to be learning to walk across the bridge, was blocking his way. I anticipated the ensuing predicament due to the girl’s age and my son’s inability to vocalize that he would like to pass; so I promptly told my son to watch out for others, and alerted the girl’s mom that my son had autism, and wouldn’t be able to say “excuse me”. Moments after I expressed this to her, my son passed by the toddler, and in the process, the little girl lost her balance, and fell to her knees and began to cry. She was not hurt, but her mother dramatically scrambled up the play structure and expressed her shock for her girl’s stumble, which she obviously felt was solely my son’s fault. This, despite the fact that her infant child, one who was still learning to walk without assistance, was on the older kid’s playground.
Somehow it was not registering to her that this event should have been expected when an inexperienced toddler is tentatively crossing a bridge without the assistance of an adult, and an excited 6 year old is also trying to cross to get to the slide (on the big kids playground, to reiterate). I think a lot of six year olds, whether they be “typical” or with ASD probably will not verbalize “pardon me” to the younger kiddos on the playground. However, I immediately apologized, and asked if her child was okay (as she obviously was; my apology was perfunctory and done in the spirit of compassion and civility). However, she met my gaze with disgust, ignored my apology, while coldly and dramatically exclaimed my son was “inexcusable.” I tried to apologize again and she still refused to acknowledge my words and said again it was inexcusable and unacceptable.
Wow. I guess she felt my nonverbal son should be segregated and play on a separate playground, with the “inexcusable” children who have disabilities? Or perhaps she possesses the archaic mindset that children like my son should be institutionalized to keep society safe? It is this kind of ignorance that has moved me to write this letter. You tell me, which is truly inexcusable? That a child with an inability to speak should pass by a toddler without saying “excuse me”? Or that, due to incidents like this, where my son and I have been shunned, I have now regularly kept my son out of the public view, away from judgmental stares?
Who is the one needing to change here? Our family or yours?
So in the hopes to avoid future playground rage and facilitate co-play with all different abilities, I would like to suggest that it is the caregiver’s responsibility to assist all children. Regardless of age and ability, the adult must use their powers of perception for potential obstacles, hazards, and all the accidents that happen from kids being kids! But even with that said, playground stumbles and fumbles are bound to happen, and unless a complete lack of regard for safety was exhibited, playground mishaps should be looked at as a learning experience (and not an “inexcusable” act)! My son with ASD may not seem to respond to your harsh words and looks, and he may not be able to speak out about how hurtful they are. But believe me, he knows when people are disapproving of him.
And so do I.
I don’t know how many people will take the time to read this, but if you did, I thank you for indulging my venting. And more importantly, I hope that by reading this we can agree that my son, and all differently abled children, can participate and fully enjoy their intrinsic right to the pursuit of happiness, TOGETHER, on the playground and beyond, with less judgmental stares, and perhaps more understanding.
Works Cited 1. Autism Society. (2016). What is Autism? Retrieved from autism-society.org: http://www.autism-society.org/what-is/ 2. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. (2015, 02 26). Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) Signs & Symptoms. Retrieved from www.cdc.gov: https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/signs.html 3. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. (2016, 07 11). Autism Spectrum Disorder, Data & Statistics. Retrieved from www.cdc.gov: https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/data.html 4. Merriam-Webster, Inc. (2018). Inexcusable _ Definition of Inexcusable by Merriam-Webster. Retrieved from www.merriam-webster.com: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/inexcusable