Last Sunday I was interviewed by an NYU graduate student in the award winning actress and performer Anna Deavere Smith’s class, On Engagement. The class covers the various forms in which we engage with one another.
One of the students asked me how I would like to see others engage with me when I am with Emma and also how to engage with Emma.
“Without judgement, for starters,” I answered.
Other people, but especially other parents can be extremely critical when confronted with a nine-year old who has fallen to the ground, screaming as though they were a two-year old having a “meltdown.” Trust me, we aren’t talking about your typical meltdown. I’ve been the mother of a toddler having a meltdown. There is a vast difference between Emma’s upset and a two-year old who has been told they cannot stay at the park for another hour. For one thing Emma is no longer two years old, for another, even a two-year old is not apt to punch themselves in the face or bite themselves so hard you can see a perfect imprint of their teeth on their arm. Many people witnessing such a scene make the assumption the parent has done something horrendous to cause such a display. So there’s blame, added to the guilt the parent may already feel. There’s also something else people do not often speak of and that is contempt. Contempt for the parent and the child. People use nicer words such as impatience or irritation, but both Richard and I have been on the receiving end of those stares, those under-the-breath mutterings or outright shouting at us – “Can’t you keep your kid quiet?” or “Why can’t you control her?” (These are the more polite versions of some of the things people have said to us.) Those comments are full of contempt.
As far as engaging Emma – my wish would be for people to treat her with respect and assume she can understand them. This is tricky because it is easy to think she doesn’t understand, to talk about her as though she weren’t there, to ignore her. I have spoken to others about Emma while she was in the room and now regret it. My oldest brother is amazing when it comes to engaging Emma. He talks to her, asks her questions and even though she will often ignore him, he continues. He doesn’t allow her nonverbal response to deter him. And she adores him. Absolutely adores him. Emma talks about him, asks about him and excitedly anticipates seeing him again.
The last question asked was if I could make up a Utopian world, what would it be. I loved that question.
It would be a world where we greeted one another as we would a favorite family member. A world where we approached each other with love and not preconceived notions of who and what that person was because of the way they looked, sounded, their nationality, race or political views. A place where we embraced our commonalities and not our differences. I know, it all sounds annoyingly pollyannaish and simplistic, even corny, but what if each of us tried, just for one day to do this? What if we tried to put our judgements aside?
For more on Emma’s journey through a childhood of autism, go to: www.Emma’s Hope Book.com