Autism acceptance took a hit last month when the news broke that two couples in Sunnyvale, CA, were suing their former neighbors because they claimed the neighbor's 11-year-old son with ASD was a "public nuisance." There's been a lot of back-and-forth on this story in the media since then, but the prevailing conversation is one of fear, ignorance, and prejudice aimed at kids with autism and their families. Even some of the responses to my fellow blogger, Ellen Seidman's, call for tolerance and doing no harm shocked me. What happened to a little bit of neighborly kindness and compassion? What happened to some empathy from the community? Was that too much to ask?
My heart ached as I considered the "public nuisance" story and wondered how my neighbors saw Liam, my 7-year-old, non-speaking son on the spectrum, and our family. We just moved into a large apartment complex this summer, and the new environment, with its accompanying sensory challenges, has caused my son a lot of stress. He's not sleeping much, he's frustrated and screaming often, and we're struggling a bit as a family to adjust to it all.
But then something happened last Sunday that restored my faith in my neighbors and put my worries to rest.
My downstairs neighbor—an elderly woman whose door we pass every time we go to the car; who sees us in the laughing moments, the moments of whirling-screaming tantrum; who sees me as I flee to the gym at night; whom we wave to as often as possible, but whose name I didn't know— called to me from her screen door as we passed on the way back from the park and store. Liam's arm was linked through mine, and together we waited as our neighbor shuffled through her apartment. She returned a few minutes later with an enormous, exuberant bouquet of flowers.
For me. Because, in her words, "You're such a good mother, and I see how much you're doing to help your beautiful children."
I took the flowers, tears rolling down my cheeks, thanked her, introduced us all, said goodbye, and went upstairs. When I ran into her again later, and tried to explain how utterly undone I was by her gesture, how grateful I was for her compassion, and how wonderful it was to gift us with a bit of unexpected beauty, she just smiled at me.
"We're all a community here," she said. "You can't do this alone, and I'm happy to connect with another neighbor who's a special education teacher. We are here to help if you need it."
Needless to say, I was undone all over again, and my heart was full. This is how you can be a good neighbor to a child with autism and his or her family. See them as humans. Ask them if they need help. Offer them kindness. Listen to them. Try to understand their challenges. Accept them in spite of those challenges.
Believe me, your kindness will go a long way.