My oldest son is autistic and non-speaking. He's also smart, funny, kind, loving, and a great problem solver. He shouldn't be an object of pity nor should he be an object upon whom others can perform so-called "good deeds" to make themselves feel better. Being nice to my son or simply treating him like a human is not a heroic act. It's a human one.
I've argued this in a recent article that criticizes the trend of valorizing non-disabled kids who take a disabled child to prom. I've talked about it on social media, but I'm not sure the point is clear. So, let me tell you story.
Not long ago, at her mother's urging, a young girl approached my autistic son in the grocery store. She said "hello," and stared at him. Instead of replying he ducked his head behind my husband and made a few noises. My husband gently told the girl that our son was autistic and didn't talk. Satisfied, the girl skipped back to her mother, who didn't give my husband or son a second glance, but who loudly declared, "That was really nice of you!" to her daughter.
Seems like a simple enough interaction, right? Just one kid saying hello to another and then her mom praising her for the social interaction, right?
Not right. Despite how it appears on the surface, this interaction objectified my son and somehow made the neurotypical girl seem like a hero just for being nice to another child her age.
And that's not OK. Seeking out my son in this way, saying hello simply in order to practice how to talk to someone with a disability, is not OK.
Now, when I told this story on Facebook, I got a lot of pushback from my friends. Didn't I want people to say hello to my son? Shouldn't he be included? people asked.
And the answer is simple: Yes! Of course I want other kids to acknowledge my son. I want them to include him and fully understand his humanity— but I don't want him to be the object of someone else trying out a moment of "let's go talk to the disabled kid" apropos of nothing.
He's human. He's got thoughts, feelings, desires, and hopes of his own. And he's not just there to make another child feel like they've accomplished something by being nice to him.
So, how could this have been better?
Well, for starters, it would have been better if the girl had approached my son without her mother's urging, in the way that kids naturally do. Or instead of praising her daughter so loudly, her mom could have made eye contact with my husband, thanked him, explained that her daughter was working on social interaction—really anything that validated my child's humanity would have changed the tenor of this interaction. Or they could have walked past without seeking out my son as well. That would have ben fine too, as he was engaged in grocery shopping with his dad and perfectly fine just being in the world as he was at that moment.
And so that's our story, but it's not a unique one. Again and again and again these narratives of "heroic" able-bodied people doing something for/with disabled kids make the news. And what's really lacking in them is the other side. The story of the kid with the disability—who may or may not want to go to prom, sit alone at a lunch table, or be left alone while grocery shopping.
So, what's the takeaway here? Be nice. Teach your children to be nice. Encourage them to be inclusive and respect difference and diversity. Read them stories written by disabled authors and have them listen to the stories of kids who are different than themselves. But in all that also teach them that there are no extra points for being respectful, nice, or kind. Don't signal boost when someone does something that's just an act of human kindness. Treating a disabled person like a person is not heroic. It's just something that good humans do to make the world a bit better for us all.