One Saturday a month, I take a group of middle school boys with Asperger’s Syndrome into the community. Our goals? A combination of community-based instruction, including skills like waiting in line to order your lunch, how to amend a mistake with your meal, and how to get a clerk’s attention, and socialization. Put simply: Plain ol’ hanging out on the weekend.
The reactions of the community members we come across are one of the most important components of our day. Unfortunately, as much as they present “teachable” moments, their reactions quickly and often rudely highlight skill deficits as “mistakes”.
Today, only two boys joined me at a local fast food restaurant for the first activity on our list. The boys and I have been on many an outing, so I hung back as we walked in to see how their behavior would fair. A small girl, about five-years-old, was standing at the register ordering a frozen treat. Her mother was about five feet behind her, waiting and watching. In essence, our situations were identical; we were waiting for the inexperienced to build self-confidence and competence under our watchful eye.
One of “my” boys cut in front of this young girl. “Mistake” #1. Calling his name, I garnered John’s attention, and he walked over to me. No surprise, he loudly shared that he was completely unaware of his error. He was not apologetic. He rejoined the line, behind her. After the little girl ordered, John loudly announced what he wanted — a mango smoothie and a large order of fries. I was pleased. He looked in the clerk’s general direction and spoke clearly and slowly. He dug his $20 bill out of his pocket and dumped it on the counter.
“Rude,” I heard the woman say. Apparently, Mistake #2. Ironically, I always remind the boys to hand their money to the cashier in case of this general reaction. John gathered his change and stood by me waiting for Mike. John began talking to me about his latest YuGiOh card addition. “Weird,” the woman muttered. I know John did not hear this comment, so I can only assume the quip was for my benefit. Mistake #3 is all on me.
I told the boys to get their drinks, preparing to educate this woman about AS. And how it means hyper-focusing, me-oriented behavior, poor volume control, poor perspective taking, intense interests. How her five-year-old can be, in some respects, on the same social plane as my two 13-year-old clients.
As I turned to her, the scene felt like slow motion. I ended up face to face with her. I looked down at her daughter and said, “Great job ordering your ice cream. I hope you enjoy it.” I walked away.
My mom would call my response, “Killing them with kindness”. As I sat down with the boys, I couldn’t help but feel like I had betrayed them. Like I missed an opportunity to inform an unknowing person about a hidden disability that is misunderstood in so many ways. The boys didn’t hear or see her reactions, in fact they were happily eating their burger, fries, and smoothies and talking about the movie we were scheduled to see. I felt like I was the only one to defend them and I took the high road. In the end, I rationalized that this outing was about the boys, having fun and learning. But, there is still a voice in my head that wonders if I made the right choice.