In new situations, I often flounder. As articulate as I like to think I am, my default mode is awkward mumbling when put in an unfamiliar or stressful scenario. I need a few minutes of back and forth before I relax enough to speak without sounding like a chump. I imagine it is the same for many adults (if not, I’m jealous, because how?)
Young children are quite the opposite. They can strike up a conversation with anyone they meet and with zero self-doubts. When they enter a roomful of strangers, there’s no fiddling with their phones or avoiding eye contact. Nope, it’s all, “here I am, friends, and also would you like to hear about my dog?” Not that they are sparkling conversationalists. They switch topics faster than you can blink, assume you know all their inside jokes, and speak loudly with no sort of filter. And I wonder: why can’t I be more like them?
My daughter, for instance, walked into her gym class today. Now she hasn’t been here for more than a year because of the pandemic. So all masked up, she steps into the lobby, accepts some hand sanitizer, and begins chatting up the instructor. Within a few minutes, she’d shared the highlights of her day and was well into a long speech about all her plush toys at home. After waving goodbye, I retreated into my car. I spent the next five minutes worrying if she would mention that I’d purchased some new bras earlier that day.
A lot of autistic individuals are the same. They don’t see the point in all this “socially acceptable” nonsense. Why blush and say, “I need to go to the bathroom,” when you can just announce, “Oops, I gotta poop!” Why indeed?
Most of us are conditioned to use flowery language and figures of speech to protect ourselves from ridicule. Or worse, rejection. The rules have been laid down, the lines are drawn, and if we dare put one toe out of place, we’re called weird. There are boundaries, and “don’t evers” and elaborate rituals, and we follow them even when they make little sense. But if we peel away the layers of societal niceties, all this fuss seems ridiculous. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could walk up to a friendly face and talk with abandon? Connect with people without biases and the general hand-wringing that comes with new interactions.
I envy my daughter and my son. They speak their minds. There’s no bottling up of emotions or hiding behind politeness. They profess love and displeasure, then come home and sleep like babies. Now, why can’t I be more like them?
This is usually the part of the essay where I write something ornate about finding my inner child and liberating myself from expectations. Let’s be honest, you expected that, didn’t you?
Yeah, not happening.
An hour later, stood outside the gym. Smiled at another parent before realizing I had a mask on.
“Your kid is in this class?”
“Mine too,” I added, unnecessarily. So that was confirmed. We weren’t random creeps skulking outside a kiddie gym. Soon, the gym door opened, and Reya ambled out in mid conversation with another girl. Something about Pokemon. Lots of excitement and humble bragging about levels mastered.
The other parent cleared her throat. I stared at my phone, clicking random apps and reading old texts. The girls were still talking, planning play dates and sleepovers that would never happen. A few minutes passed, and I glanced up. The other parent shrugged.
“Girls, am I right?”
“So true! How do they have so much energy?”
We laughed, engaged in one more round of “isn’t it so nice, that everything is coming back to normal?” and that was the extent of our vocal prowess. Finally, goodbyes were said, and final squeals were uttered.
We walked back to the car, and I asked Reya, “So fun class? Looks like you made a friend?”
“Yeah! She knows so much about Pokemon!!”
“What’s her name?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know your friend’s name?”
“No. Hey, Amma! So our teacher, Miss Jenny, also goes to Target. That’s where she got her mask from!”
“Yeah, I told her we went to Target today. And we—”
Ohmygod ohmygod ohmygod.
“Reya, did you? Did you tell her we bought bras tod—”
“Amma, I told her we bought bras today!”
Dammit. So much for how amazing kids are. Just…. dammit!
Why can’t she be more like me?