Not Bad Different, Just Different

Let's call him Casey.  That isn't his name, but any of my friends from 4th grade will remember him. The first time I met him, we were doing this thing called "Quiz Bowl."  It was what the Brits would call University Challenge, but for 9 and 10 year olds.  All the gifted children from various schools in our county would face off in teams of five and answer questions to win trophies (or maybe medals, I don't even remember now).  Our team was good.  We practiced twice a week and studied loads.  I still remember that the 1992 Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was John Shalikashvili and that the President of Iran then was Hashemi Rafsanjani.

However, we were really no match for Casey.  He knew everything.  He knew the answers before the questions were finished.  Seriously, we had about four years experience with computers at that point, and we were pretty convinced he was one.  He even talked a bit like a computerised robot.  His voice was simultaneously grating, monotonous and really annoying.  Mainly, because he would buzz in and give the correct answer every single question.  We were getting beaten badly.  Everyone got beaten badly by his school, but frankly, his teammates didn't really have to try that hard.

He was thrashing us again, until for some odd reason, someone on our team buzzed in before him.  After you buzz, you get ten seconds to answer, which for most of us, was time to figure out the right one if you don't know it right away.  Then, if you got that one right, you got three bonus questions.  Basically, we got forty points easily.  He got flustered and shouted at his teacher because he knew the answer and couldn't give it.  So, one of us tried it again on the next question.  Simply buzz in before him, get the bonus points and beat their team.  After being beaten to the punch and getting increasingly upset, something miraculous happened.  He was so red-faced and anxious that he got a question wrong.  

This was something completely new for us.  As gifted children, we immediately realised that this was our chance.  We would have to emotionally wound someone to win.  But because we were trained to win, we did it.  By the end of the match, he was crying and hitting his head on the table.  His teacher or a parent had to take him out of the room.  We won, not by a lot, but we still won.  The trophy (was it a medal?) was ours.

Then, I had no idea what autism was.  We just thought it was part of the game. We gloried in his breakdown and used this "advantage" every time we played against his team.  We were jerks, basically.

We didn't realise that he couldn't stand to lose.  We had no idea how it felt for him.  I can't say that I would've acted differently if I had known what autism was.  I don't think I really understood even when I was told later.

Let's call her "Daisy."  She was in our gifted class, and I'd known her since 4-year-old gymnastics.  I vividly remembered every week how she ran around the dressing room naked, refusing to put on her leotard and throwing it in the toilet when her mom tried to put it on.

She had always been different, and people were no kinder to her than they had been to Casey.  Middle school was terrible for me, and I wasn't that different from everyone else.  She talked about video games constantly.  Pokemon was her thing.  Every story, every writing assignment, every show and tell.  All Pokemon.  I remember trying to be kind, listening once to the differences between a Charizard and Pikachu.  Others weren't so kind.  Once, someone figured out what a "lesbian" was.  They spread a rumour that she and her best (well, her only) friend were lesbians.  That rumour persisted for years, and it made both of them cry a lot.

People hurt her, over and over.  They teased her and bullied her and manipulated her the same way we manipulated Casey as little children.  I remember her being sent to the counselor crying a lot.  I remember when she starting screaming in class one day and there was blood on her clothes and her desk.  Our teacher, Mrs. C., calmly took her out of class, gave her a sweater to wrap around her waist and sent her to the office.  We all knew what was happening, but despite her intelligence, no one had told her.  She instructed us in a stern voice that we were not to tease her about it.  Heather was different, she said.  "Please be kind to her.  I know you can."   

This was a common refrain among our gifted teachers.  Be kind to her.  She's different.  Maybe we did it sometimes, but we were teenagers, gifted with intelligence, biting wit and horrible meanness.

It wasn't until we were almost leaving school that a teacher finally told us what it was.  Asperger's.  No one really knew what that meant except different.  To us, it was weird different.  Strange.  She didn't fit in.  But finally, we were kind to her.  There was a reason she was different.  We were growing up, and we knew the world would be as unkind to her as we had been.  I don't know if it was or is. 


His real name is Brecon.  He is my best boy, and he makes getting up at 6:30 worth it every week day.  He loves the spin cycle on the washing machine as much as I love candy.  He flaps his hands when he is excited and makes a sound like Wandering Oaken from Frozen.  "Hoo-hoo!"  He loves trains so much that I sometimes wonder if the "hoo-hoo" is supposed to be "choo-choo".  But probably not.  He doesn't talk, which actually suits us both well.  I noticed that he always lies down to play with his train, so I did it too.  It makes a really pleasant whooshing sound, not unlike the spin cycle on the washing machine.  I had to learn loads of new words with him.  "Stim" and "the spectrum" and "sensory play."  I never understood the word "complex" until now.  I never understood how much love you can feel for someone who doesn't always notice until now either.  He's not mine, but he feels like mine.

He is different.  He will always depend on the care and kindness of those around him.  He is the other end of the autism spectrum.  Not bad different, just different.  


Today is World Autism Awareness Day.  I'm not sure I could add anything helpful to the chorus of voices who will be speaking today. So, I'll just say what Mrs. C. said all that time ago: "They are different.  Please be kind to them.  I know you can."


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