Philip was on a roll. He lightly gripped my hand with his left while pushing his right against the wall to propel himself forward. He skated toward the far end of the rink that was lined with mirrors. I knew he would pause there to admire his own mug.
“I see you,” I said with a smile.
I had lost count of the number of laps we had made but they far outpaced his falls. We made several circuits before taking a break.
“He’s skated before,” the owner remarked as Philip headed to the flashing lights of the arcade games.
“This is our third time,” I confirmed.
“He’s doing great,” was the reply.
I had never considered taking my seven-year-old autistic son roller skating until his cub scout pack held its holiday party at a local rink. The den leader assured me that I could walk alongside Philip in street shoes. Knowing that and the fact that we would be surrounded by people familiar with Philip, I had acquiesced. Philip loved it. He loved the colored lights reflecting off of dangling disco balls. He loved the weight of the skates on his feet and sensation of whizzing along. He fell down many times but he never cried. He just kept getting up. His resiliency made me tear up, so I was glad for darkened space and pop tunes blaring from the speakers.
When the parent group at his school hosted an event at the same rink during spring break, I took Philip skating for the second time. Again, I felt more comfortable going where people knew Philip than I did taking him to an open skating night. That evening, Philip’s schoolmates skated by saying, “Hi, Philip” without expecting a reply or eye contact. No surly teens glared as we moved at our own pace around the rink. No parents commented when he rocked or hummed.
When Philip’s teacher had sent home a flyer from the local educational service center advertising a “Skate/Unskate Night” as part of Autism Awareness Month, I decided to venture to a facility further away that we had never been to before. I was less than thrilled that the poster said the event was for “families living with autism” as if autism were a houseguest that outstayed its welcome. Still, I wasn’t going to complain about a venue waiving its admission fee and offering accommodations like keeping the lights up and not blasting the music.
It had been worth the drive. I hate crowds more than Philip does, so the fact that there were only two dozen people in the entire place suited me just fine. The staff was friendly and respectful, offering coins for the games, adjusting skates as needed, and checking on their guests throughout the night.
Philip smiled and chattered as he skated lap after lap. I didn’t worry once about what anyone would think of his mannerisms or noises. Sure, I should be able to ignore other people, but I am incurably nosy. I overhear conversations. I observe facial expressions. I notice things like people staring at us and hear comments muttered under breath. Yes, I shouldn’t let these things bother me. While I don’t let them affect me enough to force Philip to act “normally,” being surrounded by “normal” people and their ignorance is still exhausting.
Philip was on a roll again, making another circuit when a woman and her son skated by. The other boy was four or five years older than Philip. He was vocalizing like Philip does, an “mmm, mmm, mmm” sound I know quite well.
How great that Philip is with his tribe, I thought.
And then the other mother said, “Shhhhh.”
I was taken aback. Of all the places to let one’s child be loud, proud and autistic, it was here. There was no judging in this place. Is your daughter afraid of roller skates? Let her walk. Your son can’t modulate the volume of his voice? He isn’t bothering us.
I was saddened by the shushing. There were only a half dozen people on the rink. The sound of urethane wheels hitting wood was louder than the vocalizing. Yet, she hushed him all the same. Maybe it was force of habit. Maybe she, too, notices the dirty looks or has received unsolicited advice about controlling her child. Maybe she thinks she is protecting him by asking him to be quiet.
That one syllable haunted me. In a room full of autism awareness, it signaled that autism acceptance is still a distant goal.
Philip rolled up to the mirrors, hamming it up for his own entertainment, accompanying each facial expression with a different sound. I didn’t ask him to stop. I didn’t insist that he be quiet. I refuse to mold him into someone else, someone less autistic, in order for him to be acceptable.
“I see you,” I said. And world? You better be ready to see and hear him, too.