People freeze in unknown situations. It’s normal. And it’s why I became interested in this field in the first place. I was reminded of this earlier today.
I ran out to grab lunch and while I was waiting for my bagel – headphones in my ears because I was on the phone, face-down looking at recent work messages – I heard someone say his name and walk into what some might call my personal bubble. Within seconds, he asked my name, birthday, and hair color, and noticed I was wearing a ring and earrings. This young teenager’s way of interacting felt familiar.
I removed my headphones and took the opportunity to engage in conversation. As an adult who is well aware of not giving away too much personal information, I knew it was pretty safe to share things like my name and birthday. “What color do you think my hair is?” I asked. He looked in my direction. “It’s brown, just like yours,” I added. “And yes, you’re right, I do have a ring and earrings.” “My birthday is coming up. When is yours?” He shared when his birthday was and I asked what he did to celebrate. When it was time for me to head out, I said, “It was nice to talk to you.”
He looked right at me and, with a prompt from his mom, responded.
His mother thanked me for my compassion. To me, this was not about compassion but rather respect. Though we did not engage in the usual small talk banter about the weather or a recent sports win, the conversation was not too different from the one I might have at another deli counter with someone else waiting for a sandwich. It was a moment of connection with another person.
These conversations should not be rare.
Navigating an interaction for the first time with someone who has a disability like autism can feel different.
The rhythm of the back and forth that I had at the deli counter was not what some people are used to in daily life. Having someone enter your personal space can be uncomfortable. Just as your instinct might be to take a step back from a ‘close talker’, another person may find it too overwhelming or uncomfortable to look you directly in your eyes, or to hold that eye gaze. Flapping arms, quick moving hands or jumping feet may be one person’s way to control his experience in the world. It might be unexpected when someone grabs your hand to shake it before you’ve extended it on your own, but that’s no reason to turn away or become engrossed in your phone.
Instead, let’s make ourselves available to connecting with others and learning about our diverse world.
Embrace that handshake, whether you were expecting it or not. Ask questions. Don’t be offended if you don’t get an answer. Try to rephrase it. If there is an adult nearby who has reworded your question, follow their lead and try another one. Just as you would with anyone you just meet, look for clues: if a child has a truck on their shirt, you might ask if they like trucks. If you’re outside walking on a beautiful day, comment on the fresh air. If you sense they don’t want to talk, end the conversation and wish them a nice day – just as you would whenever else you sense there are no more topics left for discussion.
The bottom line is this: people are people.
Act the way you would with anyone else, and teach your children the same. Just because someone acts differently than what you might expect, don’t look the other away.