I went this morning to our local Early Years Centre, which has a special program called "Dads Can Play Too". It's a pretty awesome idea - I was impressed to see that even the play group leader is a dude. I brought both kids; Nana was happy to help watch Tyler while Alanna was running around. I explained to the lady at the desk that Alanna was special needs (and had autism) right before she took off and ran away (her timing was impeccable). Alanna was not herself. She played with almost no toys, had poor eye contact and wandered aimlessly. She took crayons and threw them. It was almost as if she'd regressed six months in six minutes. I don't think I've seen her this "autistic" in a long while. Many of the dads were staring at her. When Alanna was younger, many parents often told me they would never know she was autistic unless I told them. Now that she is almost 2 1/2, this is a much rarer comment. The typical sign is her lack of speech - many 2 year olds at her age are talking non-stop. It was obvious something was different just in the way I spoke to her. As I have been taught, I always use simple speech with Alanna to help her understand what I am saying. I speak slowly and repeat. To a dad of a typical kid it would look pretty odd. Eventually one of the dads I met (his son was playing nearby) asked me, "She doesn't talk much does she?" I explained, "She has autism." He nodded, happy with the explanation but I could tell he didn't really know much about autism. When we were leaving, Alanna had a small meltdown and the women outside watched her with concern, looking at me and her with pity. Everyone tried to be helpful and I tried to be gracious in accepting it.
When I left in the car, I cried silently as I drove home. I couldn't help myself, it was too overwhelming. Seeing Alanna "interact" with a kid her own age was heartbreaking. Talking to the kid was so easy. It was natural. No saying, "good looking", or "nice talking". Just an easy, back and forth discussion. She is so behind, I thought to myself. These things are so hard for Alanna. I forget how hard it is for her until I see a kid her age and see how easy and normal it is for them.
Looking back now, Alanna probably did pretty well. Six months ago she would have melted down and lost it... I wouldn't have even been able to go in. But she went into a completely strange place with strange adults and kids and was able to cope. She was not herself but I am guessing she was overwhelmed by everything and shut it out to cope. She was immediately all smiles and more herself when we got home. So maybe it wasn't a bad outing. I'm trying to think positively here. I know that many of Alanna's repetitive behaviours and unusual interests are greatly diminished from six months ago.
But I learned something today. I have to admit I'm much more compassionate to people with disabilities now that I have a daughter who has one (go figure). If you see a child with an obvious disability (or even anyone for that matter), don't pity them. They are coping and if you feel sorry for them won't make them feel any better. When someone tells you about a disability, they want your understanding. It's to inform you so you know what's going on - it's not an invitation for you to say poor parent, you have a child with autism. I know Alanna has autism. I'm just telling you so when she runs around flapping her arms and doesn't talk you know why.