Are you kinder than an 8 year old? Do not answer. It is a rhetorical question. Think about it. Are you?
Do you walk through the world unbiased? Do you choose to embrace the difference around you? Do you truly see people? Not just the person standing in front of you or the behaviors in front of your eyes. Do you truly see people? Do you believe that there is good and opportunity inside of everyone? Do you show kindness even when kindness is not earned? Do you show unconditional support of someone who needs a little extra from you? Are you willing to sacrifice a little piece of yourself in order to help another person?
I think we walk through this world wanting to believe that we can honestly and truthfully respond in the affirmative to every one of those questions. But, we are wrong.
When push comes to shove it is human nature to protect ourselves first. To do the right thing, until the right thing becomes uncomfortable or inconvenient. Sure, protect yourself. Put on your own mask before assisting others. But while you are protecting yourself; open your mind. Open your mind to the idea that the person sitting next to you is different from you in a million ways that you can see; and a million different ways you cannot see.
I just sat face-to-face with an adult who has a different definition of kindness and inclusion than mine. An adult who is aware of my son’s autism spectrum disorder diagnosis. I sat and listened as she deconstructed my son’s “tantrums”. I let her say that word 4 times before I stopped her.
My son does not have tantrums. My son has autism. The behaviors she was describing are a part of who he is. My son is not bad or naughty or defiant. My son is autistic.
And I cannot tell you how much it pains me to say those words. Even still today 5 years after diagnosis. Even though he is verbal. Even though he is mainstreamed for school. Even though he plays sports and has friends and is living a full life. I still wake up every single morning the mother of a son with autism. And he still wakes up a child with autism. And neither of us chose this life.
But come on guys. It is 2020. How are we still here? How are there still grown-ups who do not understand that it is not okay to discriminate against someone for a disability? To Sit down and describe REASONS someone is bad without understanding that they are recounting a list of SYMPTOMS.
And after the unkind words and reasons why my son cannot be accepted, I was told that they were not ready, emotionally, to embrace my son.
Wouldn’t that be nice? Gosh. If I had the luxury in the moment of one of my son’s behaviors to say, “hey you know what bud, now isn’t really a good time for me. I had a long day and I have laundry to fold. I am not quite sure I can deal with you, emotionally, right now. Can we take a month off while I try to decide if I can step outside of myself to help you?”
That is not how the world works. Not for me, and not for my autistic son. Maybe not for anyone.
We are feeling people in a world full of feelings. And right now I am feeling disappointed. I am feeling mad. And, I am feeling overwhelmed by ignorance. By exclusion. By the inability of grown-ups to step outside of themselves. To process their emotions without limiting a child. To be a better example of the kindness and compassion and inclusion that we should be able to expect of each other.
I understand the dangers of autism. Believe me. I have the scars to prove it. My house is filled with wall patches. I have spent more money disposing of cracked electronics at the dump than I care to remember. I understand that his behaviors (tantrums) can be tough to take. And because of that we have committed our lives to giving him the tools and support he needs. To work through his behaviors. To grow. To get it wrong, and to get back up and try again.
We do not diminish this journey and the ways that it affects other people. I am other people. My life, and the person I used to be, are both casualties of my son’s autism diagnosis. Autism is hard. Autism hurts. But my son is so much more than his diagnosis. Autism is also kind. It is pure. Autism is a million little moments of joy and anger and sadness and jubilation and rage and fear, and every other emotion.
My son is good. And my son has the power to unlock hope and opportunity and kindness in everyone around him. I have seen that firsthand. I have watched children embrace his difference. Learn from it. I have watched an 8 year old child master the skills of redirection and extinction. I have listened to children explain my son and his behaviors to other children. I have watched time and time again as my son has stolen his way into the hearts of people around him. And as a result I have seen them be better, kinder people.
But that cannot happen if you do not let him in.
So you can close this door. You can give up on him. You can exclude him. You can live inside of your tantrum-free world.
But the world out here is going to keep moving forward. Because we have to. Because it is the right thing to do. Because our children deserve to live in a world where adults are the teachers, and not the students, of kindness.
And we will move forward. We will grow and prosper and be stronger. Not because of you, but in spite of you. In spite of anyone who thinks we cannot. In spite of anyone who looks at my son and sees the autism first. Or worse yet, only sees the autism. Because he will move forward. He will be amazing. And I will be right there beside him. I will continue to believe that we can build a world filled with adults capable of unconditional kindness.
And until then, I will continue to take my lessons on kindness from 8 year-olds.