September 8, 2011 by Marj Hatzell
One of the hallmarks of autism (besides the obvious social delays and communication difficulties) is difficulty with faces. Recognizing faces, reading facial expressions and understanding emotions are skills that are difficult for many individuals with autism. Depending on the degree or severity of autistic symptoms, a person with autism might not even recognize their own family members on sight.
Bugaboo had difficulty with this when he was younger. He still struggles with the facial recognition, expressions and emotions but at least knows my face when he sees it. For a while he’d look down, look for familiar shoes or any mom at the playground with a strawberry blond-ish ponytail. Or look for a dad with sneakers and jeans. And nine times out of ten, he’d shock the heck out of some poor, unsuspecting parent (or non-parent, as the case may be) until we’d say, “Bugaboo! Wrong mom! Daddy is over here!”
Bug Boy also struggles with this. He recognizes folks, sure. But unfamiliar people? It takes him a loooooong time not to mix up a new person with either someone he knows or someone else he doesn’t know quite well. Even my husband has a difficult time with this, although it mostly centers around, “so-and-so looks like ______! (insert celebrity that bears no resemblance to so-and-so here)” And I wonder where my kids get it…
But is this a bad thing? Is not recognizing people a bad skill? Is it something that the years and years of therapy SHOULD extinguish? Most experts will agree that difficulties with facial recognition are an impairment. But this mommy? Not so sure.
Last week I had two examples thrust under my gaze. Want to hear about them? OF COURSE YOU DO. And even if you didn’t, I’m gonna tell you anyway, because I’m awesome like that.
One day last week we were out at our local Giant Red Bullseye store ( aka my mecca) and noticed a family there with four young children, one of whom had some sort of brain injury or CP. Bug Boy was curious to know why the boy moved (or didn’t, more accurately) the way he did. He didn’t seem to notice the boy’s extra-large head, obvious brain shunt, drooling, floppy extremities. So we got on the subject of brain injury, water on the brain/hydrocephalus (what I’m guessing was up with the little boy we saw) and how injury to the brain can cause disability, physical symptoms, etc. He was perplexed. He didn’t quite understand what was going on.
That’s when I pointed out a beloved friend of the family, who had several strokes as a baby and child. As a result, our beloved friend is disabled. She walks with an unsteady gait and her arm and leg on one side of her body are impaired. She also holds her right arm at a bizarre angle and doesn’t use the right hand. This beloved family friend spends quite a bit of time at our house (or did, until she started college this fall. Sniff, sniff) and the boys know and love her. And when I said, “You know, like Renee!” And Bug Boy said, “What do you mean, Renee? She’s disabled? Huh? I never noticed.” And when I pointed out the limp/gait and the arm, he had no idea what I was talking about. To him, Renee was just Renee. She wasn’t disabled. There was nothing “wrong” with her. He saw her as a person, a lovely young woman. He saw nothing else. Interesting, no?
Later that day we had school tours at his school. Every year it is customary for the fifth graders to provide school tours to incoming first graders and other new students. Bug Boy was volunteered (by me, because I’m awesome like that) and balked at it at first but did an excellent job. We saw our new neighbors there, who are Chinese. They are lovely people and their children are adorable and talk to us every single day. Later on, Bug Boy wanted to know why Danny had a “Chinese name” and a “regular” name (as Danny described it). I explained a little about culture and how Chinese names were an important part of their heritage. Then I said, “You know, like Franny and Mary, our old neighbors? The ones whose dog we used to watch? They had Chinese names, too.” And he wanted to know why. I couldn’t understand why he didn’t understand. And then I said, “Well, when they were adopted, they were given their English names, but their parents knew it was very important for them to learn about their culture so they kept their Chinese nick names, too.” To which Bug Boy replied, “WAIT. THEY ARE ADOPTED? I HAD NO IDEA!”
Now, a little background on Franny and Mary. They are obviously Chinese. Their mother has blonde hair and is a California girl. Their father is a tall, slender white man. Bug Boy never noticed a difference. He never put two and two together. The fact that they were adopted (obvious to me, not so much by him) was a total shock to him. He didn’t see a difference. He didn’t see eyes, hair color, skin. He saw children. And parents. A loving family. He never noticed their “appearance” really. Hmmmm…
So why do we? Why do the rest of us? Why do we see colors and disabilities and differences? Why do we see beauty and ugliness? Maybe the world isn’t so black and white. Maybe we need to stop spending so much time dwelling on differences. And see people the way Bug Boy sees them.
And people think HE’S the one with the problem. He’s the “different one.” And I think he’s just fine the way he is. Awesome, really.