“He’s weird,” she said, chuckling nervously.
I knew it was a teachable moment, but I let it slide. While I’m not keeping it a secret, I’ve never taken the time to say to my youngest niece, “Your cousin is autistic.” She is a bright, curious young girl who surely would have asked, “What does that mean?” This conversation has never taken place, so I decided not to interrupt our Christmas festivities with a lecture.
I know my niece loves Philip. The pair bonded early on. She can easily elicit smiles from Philip. She alone has matched his energy, willing to hug, tickle, chase, blow bubbles and endlessly repeat games with him when the adults are all tuckered out. In fact, we’ve often had to curb her enthusiasm, warning her, “Be careful. That’s too much for him.”
Yet, I’ve never explained why it is “too much.” So I feel I am partially to blame when Philip’s behavior prompts her to say, “He’s weird.”
It makes me sad how many miles separate the cousins. They are only together at holidays and birthdays. I swear she is taller every time I see her. She surpassed Grandma’s height several visits ago. Just as she outgrows her clothes, I fear she’ll soon outgrow her interest in playing with her cousin.
Before that day comes, I must explain to her what autism is. I’ll need to admit to her that, before I knew better, I found many of Philip’s behaviors to be odd. I want her to understand that Philip is not weird, strange or scary. He is “different, not less.”
I won’t tell her that it hurt my heart to hear her say, “He’s weird.” It’s not that I believe she meant any harm, but she gave me a glimpse into Philip’s future. Some day, a classmate, a neighbor, a co-worker, a passer-by will repeat those words. While I may be in a position to educate my niece, I likely won’t be around to teach these strangers.
I hope that I am raising Philip so that he will be confident enough with who he is to not let these words hurt. I can’t help but want to protect him. Until then, I need to seize the next teachable moment.