“Be special someplace else”

Learning the social norms of public spaces, including how to interact with the variety of people you’ll meet there, is generally part of our upbringing.  My most vivid memory from before age 5 is this: walking through the dairy aisle of a grocery store with my mom, looking around, and suddenly having her grab me and hiss that I needed to stop staring. I was baffled. Staring at what? She furiously told me, “Those people are our neighbors and they’re dwarves and it’s rude to stare.” That’s when it clicked that she was talking about a short woman and her shorter son nearby, who hadn’t previously registered in my consciousness as unusual in any way. My face burned red with confusion and embarrassment (and decades as a high self-monitor ensued).

Perhaps that’s why I found this Slate essay by the mother of an autistic teenager so interesting. She cites a couple of recent examples of public behavioral conflict involving an autistic man and a child with Down’s syndrome and writes about her own challenges. Do other patrons have a right to quiet enjoyment of a meal when there is an excited autistic child nearby?  Does the family of that autistic child have a right to have dinner in a restaurant without being hidden in the back?

Amy S.F. Lutz says this:

As anyone who’s ever parented young children knows, there are two ways of sharing: taking turns or using something together. Turn-taking seems to be particularly in vogue of late, at least when it comes to autistic people in the community: Zoos, amusement parks, bowling alleys, roller skating rinks, movie theaters and purveyors of just about any type of entertainment imaginable are setting aside time particularly for individuals with autism and their families. These are fabulous programs that allow autistic children to have fun and try new activities. They also take the pressure off parents…  Philosophically, however, it bothers me: What are my children, and my friend’s children, learning about the place of the disabled in the community?

It’s an excellent question. Let me turn it to another example that may be more personal for many of us: At the university, I have had a couple of classes with a young woman with an autism spectrum disorder. The first days were the most difficult as the professor and other students learned to expect her outbursts, lack of restraint, and her harsh tone of voice. She’s very smart and often insightful, but her behavior is disruptive and has an effect on everyone in the room. Weeks into the semester, frustrated groans and awkward laughter could still be heard from distant rows whenever she blurted out a random comment. (To their credit, both professors I observed in this situation did an excellent job of trying to manage her outbursts firmly but appreciatively and to encourage the rest of the students to participate.) What should our expectations be? Are the other students learning a free lesson in tolerance and acceptance? Does the autistic student’s right to participate in the classroom take precedence over the rights of the other students, who are paying the same tuition for the class?

These aren’t new questions, and our attitudes now may be more accepting, but I don’t think we’ve reached a consensus about what is fair — or at least best, if not fair — for everyone.