This story is one about ignorance. My own.
Several years ago, something bad happened to my family, and I started pulling away from the church. The pastor, bless him, tried to stop the outward ebb of the Griffis family by organizing a motorcycle trip to Iowa. He drafted me as a driver in the break-down van to trail behind several of my dearest friends straddling hogs and Hondas as they roared down hundreds of miles of country roads. He thought it would be healing.
After bad weather, engine trouble, messed up hotel reservations and the awkwardness of dear people trying to pretend that all was right in the world, we headed back home.
I don’t know what road we were on, and I don’t know what state we were in, but I was in the passenger seat with the pastor’s wife behind the wheel, watching our little biker gang take a huge, blind curve. Suddenly, there were rhinoceroses standing at the bend in the road. Even as my mind was registering that these life-sized beasts were made of stone, I jumped, the pastor’s wife startled, and the motorcycle directly in front of us, the one ridden by my friend Angie, swerved and lost control. We screamed and yelled frantic prayers to God as we watched Angie and her bike skid, drag and flip end over end at the side of the road.
I tell you all this as an excuse for my next behavior, even as I know that there really is no excuse.
Due to God’s protection, Angie was banged up, but otherwise healthy. We were all shaken to the core and decided to get off the road as soon as possible to recover. Golden arches appeared after a few miles and, by unspoken agreement, we all pulled off and walked in the restaurant to order.
I was last in line. The girl behind the counter was a pretty teenager with an unsmiling face. I watched and listened as she took my friends' orders in a cold, unfriendly manner without making eye contact. With each order, I felt rage building inside me. She was so rude! I was physically trembling, and my thoughts became loud, angry and unorganized. My pastor was directly in front of me. I could see that he was already defensive when he placed his order, but he remained in control. The girl became surly at a request he made and refused to place his order until he changed it. My pastor, a man who was trying to help me at the worst time of my life, looked upset and confused… and that was it.
Everything in me - the hurt, the fear, the rage - boiled over and that poor girl took the brunt of it all. I told her exactly what I thought of her, her rudeness, her arrogance, her teenaged snottiness. I made her cry. The other staff members gathered around her while trying to placate me. I demanded her manager. A tired-looking older woman approached me with caution, and I let her have it too. Did she care so little about customer service that she would let this insolent jerk behind a register? Why wasn’t this horrible girl in back with the deep fryers? Why didn’t she receive better training? Why wasn’t she disciplined? Why wasn’t she fired?!
The manager endured my barrage of furious questions with lines of exhaustion on her face, and said, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry…” over and over again. When my rant was finished, she simply said, “We hire people with disabilities. She has autism.”
The rage was gone, replaced by a soul-deep tiredness. I was raised hearing my dad say, “There’s rarely a reason not to be nice. Show the world kindness.” I thought, ‘Wow. The first time I ever lose my temper in public, and it’s at a young girl with autism.’ Why didn’t I listen to my dad? And why, after working several months in the disability field, didn’t I notice the signs of disability?
It was because, while I recognized the possible speech impediments, disjointed conversations, slack jaws, protruding tongues, flat features and wondering, wandering eyes of some people with intellectual disabilities, I knew next to nothing about autism.
I don’t remember much else from that point onward. Just shame and embarrassment… and a determination that I would learn all I could about autism so, even in extreme circumstances, I could handle the disability with patience, love and control.
Over time, through reading books, magazines and blogs, and through the invaluable experience of getting to know and love the people of Shepherds, I learned about autism.
I learned that some people with autism have bright, active minds while others struggle with remedial tasks.
I learned that some people with autism have sensory issues that cause them great stress – and some don’t.
I learned that all people with autism are somewhere on a “spectrum” because they all have different levels of functioning and differing abilities, much as we all do.
I learned that people with autism need support and understanding, not impatience, criticism and judgment.
In honor of this special day, I want to give you something - something that could change your life and the lives of those around you, something I wish I had all those years ago at that counter in McDonalds – knowledge.
Please learn all about autism this World Autism Day and National Autism Awareness Month.
Autism Speaks - http://www.autismspeaks.org
Autism Society - http://www.autism-society.org
Autism Research Institute - http://www.autism.com
Autism Now - http://autismnow.org
Autism Basics - http://health.howstuffworks.com/mental-health/autism/autism3.htm
The Autistic Mind - http://www.planetautism.com/gary2.htm
The Best Books on Autism - http://www.goodreads.com/list/show/15047.Best_Books_for_Autism
Autism Parenting Magazine - http://www.autismparentingmagazine.com
Autism Asperger's Digest - http://autismdigest.com
Autism Spectrum Quarterly - http://www.asquarterly.com/
Shepherds College - Guiding Your Transition to Appropriate Independence. Please visit us at www.shepherdscollege.edu.