If I could take a single snapshot of myself as a child, it would be of me as a little girl looking out the window watching the children play. A child wishing to join in, but too afraid to step outside and ask “can I play?” Maybe if she had asked, they would have let her join in the circle. But repeatedly being a victim of bullying, she didn’t dare risk rejection. She maintained her distance on the sidelines where she felt safe.
She compensated the loneliness with retreating into a world of make-believe where she could be anybody she wanted to be. She made up a cast of characters who let her join their circle. In this world, she got to take part and play the starring role. The little girl knew it was a world of her own imagination. And when she invariably got caught acting strange, pacing back and forth, talking to herself, she’d bear the brunt of the heckling. No matter the fingerpointing, she’d retreat to that imaginary world where she was somebody.
I am on the autism spectrum and was only self-diagnosed almost three years ago at the age of 58. My diagnosis was a gift I shall treasure for the rest of my days. I know now what’s behind how I think, feel, and act. Before the diagnosis, it was like walking in pitch black darkness. The diagnosis was the light bulb.
It was largely through working as a substitute teaching assistant that I came to the realization of being autistic. Sometimes I would cross paths with a child who reminded me of the little girl looking out the window.
One of those times occurred in an elementary school gym while subbing for a P.E. aide. I was watching the children play in stations, each section being a different game. I noticed a third-grade boy who was standing next to me. I asked him why wasn’t he at one of the stations and he shrugged his shoulders. I asked him, “How about basketball or tether ball, or jump rope, or hula-hoop?” He nodded “no” at all my suggestions. I asked him what he liked to do. He said, “EAT!” I could not keep a straight face.
This youngster was tugging at my heart strings. I knew what it was to just watch the other kids play. Instead of pushing him to shoot baskets or jump rope, I asked him if he’d like to take a walk with me. He agreed to that.
As we went for our walk around the other kids playing, I asked him questions such as what he was wishing for Christmas. He said, “Food!” This boy had more “food” on his brain than inside his tummy. I asked him what his favorite food was and he said “hamburger” and what hamburger place he liked best and he said “Mom’s”. I assumed he meant Mom’s homemade hamburgers were better than at any restaurant.
He pulled out his Mom’s business card with a beaming smile on his face. He was so PROUD of his Mom and it seemed to be of such comfort to him to have the card with her phone number in case he needed to call her. He let me see the card and it was a hamburger restaurant. That explained why his Mom’s hamburgers were the best and his favorite food.
He told me he had one sibling, an 18 year old sister, who works with Mom at the restaurant. Since there’s a big difference in ages, perhaps he’s not used to playing with kids his own age. He feels more comfortable with adults than other kids and I was that way when I was his age. Now I prefer hanging out with children more than I do adults.
I believe the Lord has blessed me with both my diagnosis and a job that helps me cope with that diagnosis. It was no burden at all to let that child know that he wasn’t invisible to me. I gave him a little bit of time and attention that I wished someone had given me when I was that little girl looking out the window. The past can’t be changed or relived. But my job gives me numerous opportunities to help young ones who struggle with what I struggled with and still do.