Apr 25, 2013 0 Share

Being Embarrassed

Illustration of young woman standing next to, but looking away from, young man.

Have you ever wished you had a time machine, so that you could intervene and change the past? That’s how I felt when I read Liane Kupferberg Carter’s recent column, “The Way You Look at Him.” As I read, I wanted a DeLorean; I longed to arrange for someone to show up in that waiting room and give Mickey a whole-hearted look of acceptance. The time-travel angle hasn’t worked out yet, but reading Carter’s moving account reminded me of my own recent experience with my brother drawing stares from strangers. 

As Willie was having his “Kicking the Trees” meltdown during our family visit, I noticed a desire to hide, or “cover up,”  his behavior. We were in a residential neighborhood, and I could practically feel people turning away, pretending not to see and hear what was going on. I was struck with the thought, After all these years, how can I feel embarrassed by Willie’s behavior? But, as Carter notes in her column, trying-not-to-stare glances can still cut to the heart, even after years of dealing with them. By contrast, our parents didn’t seem to give the general public a second thought as they dealt with the meltdown. This makes sense. If your son is in the middle of a meltdown, you don’t have much attention left to spare for bystanders. But if you’re the older sister, sitting on the sidelines and giving your sibling room, there’s more space for embarrassment to creep in.  

Yet I also know that shame only takes over if I let it. If I keep my focus elsewhere—if I consider how far Willie has come in the last few years, and how proud I am of him—it invariably dissipates. And there’s a small silver lining to the social awkwardness factor: Seeing how others interact with Willie has proved an excellent gauge for my own friendships and relationships. Ask any autism parent or sibling, and they’ll affirm that the simple acts of kindness are treasured. When people greet Willie with respect, when they make efforts to include him in a conversation, you’d better believe that I notice. 

At the same time, I empathize with those who don’t know what to say when they meet someone who doesn’t communicate in a “traditional” way. I’ve been in that position myself. 

When I lived in Washington DC, I rode the Metro frequently. One day, I noticed a young man sitting on the floor of the train car. He had a sketchbook on his lap, and a pack of markers close at hand. He was drawing, and an older gentleman—his father, perhaps—was seated in the row closest to him, leaning forward in a protective way. After a few moments, I had a sense that this young man might be on the spectrum. I didn’t want to assume, but his slight hand-flapping and rocking made it seem likely. I’d never seen him before, and I wished for a way to let him and his father know that I wasn’t thinking, “weird” or “strange” or “what’s wrong with him?” On the contrary, his presence brightened my day. His intense focus reminded me of brother at the piano; it made me smile. 

My stop approached, and as I made my way to the door, I took the opportunity to look down at the young man’s drawing. The subject escapes my memory, but I remember the quality of the workmanship. “That’s a great drawing,” I said sincerely. (I can barely draw a stick figure.) And as I spoke the simple words, I realized that they were sufficient. 

The young man looked up with what might have been surprise; his expression seemed to say, Do you mean me? My drawing? I nodded and smiled, feeling foolish and glad all at once. Then the doors chimed, and I stepped off. As the train moved away, tears sprang to my eyes. But they weren’t about pity, and the look on my face was not what Carter calls the, “there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I Tragedy Look.” Instead, it was something like, Here, by the grace of God, for just a moment, we met.