Why I Can Never Talk to Strangers
As a parent, one of the things you are supposed to teach your kids is never to talk to strangers. Which is why I find it a little funny how much strangers talk to kids. Before I had kids I could go into a grocery store, do all my shopping and never talk to anyone save maybe the person bagging my groceries when they ask ‘paper or plastic.’ But drag a kid into the store with me, and everyone wants to chat. To the kids. “Hi, how are you? How old are you? Are those your favorite chips?” I even do this myself, though my social intrusion into other people’s families is more likely to be trying to make other people’s babies smile. I just can’t help it.
So I understand the impulse, and mostly, this is completely fine, harmless. Unless, that is, you have a far from typical child. My daughter and I were in a Starbucks in a community center near our house. My daughter, Lyra, was 4 at the time but looked about 6 (lots of tall genes coming her way). In the way of kindly middle aged ladies everywhere, a slight brunette woman approached Lyra and tried to strike up a conversation. “What’s your name? Are you enjoying your cookie?”
My daughter looked at her curiously with her big blue eyes, but was silent and not terribly interested. I was still pretty new to this particular brand of social awkwardness. Lyra’s diagnosis had come a couple of years before, but she had still looked young enough that people didn’t expect a lot in the way of response. I somewhat protectively brushed Lyra’s blond bangs back off of her face and said apologetically to this stranger — “She isn’t likely to answer you, she has autism.”
There was a pause, the woman working to conceal her reaction, searching for a response. “Well… She is beautiful” she assured me, with a decided emphasis on the word beautiful.
Now it was my turn to blankly stare at her while I tried to figure out what to do with that “compliment”. I stuttered a thank you and we went our separate ways.
It didn’t feel complimentary, and it didn’t feel like something I should thank her for. But what could I have said? “Thanks, yeah, we’re a little bummed about the lifetime of challenge she faces learning how to live with a multifaceted developmental disability, but at least she’s not ugly! That would be the worst.”
As you may have gleaned, I fumed over this one for a while. But then I realized that people really don’t know what to say. There is no easy response to that information about a stranger’s child. My intention had been to diffuse social awkwardness of my daughter not replying to her friendly overture, but it just made it all worse.
So, I have adopted a ‘need to know’ policy for talking to strangers about autism. If my child is present, the most I will say is ‘she doesn’t talk very much’ — if someone has posed a direct question to her that I know she will not answer. Sometimes I don’t even say that — I will just answer for her in that sing song way that parents do for younger children. They might think I am doing something wrong, not letting her answer, but whatever. Seriously, whatever. The vast majority of people don’t need to know anything else. Actually, really, no one needs to know anything else, it is really nobody’s business.
I really hate to pretend that my daughter isn’t who she is, like I am hiding her from the world. And I am hyper aware of her overhearing my explanations of her to other people. While she talks very little, and even less to strangers, we know that she understands quite a bit more. So I know that she hears me, and hears my tone, and sees people’s reactions when I share information about her. I never want her to feel badly about who she is, and almost more so, I don’t want her to think that I feel badly about who she is. So I tread lightly, not for the sake of well-meaning old ladies, but for the sake of my unique, wonderful, challenging, and yes, beautiful, daughter.