I could not hold in the laughter this morning, watching my daughter try to reach something that was not exactly in her reach. She’s two years old and two feet tall and what she wanted was on top of the REFRIGERATOR. More than just a little out of her reach. The ridiculousness of it killed me, seeing her jump as high as she could get her tiny body, reaching her arms toward the sky. She put so much effort in she was actually grunting. I mean there’s like 5 feet to go and she jumped as if it was an actual possibility that she could snag that snack up top if she just gave it her all. As comical as the scene was, if I didn’t step in and offer some help she was about to get pretty darn frustrated pretty darn quick.
So I shoved her aside, reached up and grabbed her snack. While tossing it down to her I scoffed and said, “c’mon, what’s so hard about that!” No, I didn’t. I obviously didn’t do that. But the concept is as absurd as the kinds of expectations we put on people with secret special needs. We do it all the time. I do it all the time. We can’t see the clear advantage we have over someone and then expect them to be able to do what we do, the way we do it, and we can’t comprehend why it’s so dang difficult for them.
In college, I had a professor that described empathy not just as walking around in someone else’s shoes but as trying to imagine BEING THEM and walking around in their shoes, for awhile. It changes perspective completely. If I look at my two year old and put myself in her shoes, yeah it’s kind of ridiculous that she can’t reach the snacks. But if I imagine being her, in her tiny body, attempting that task, suddenly I see how insurmountable it could be for her. It’s easy to see when looking at a toddler, but it isn’t always so easy to see when looking at someone with a secret special need, because I can’t see with my eyeballs what is causing the challenge.
It’s Autism Awareness month and lots of other things awareness month too. I know that can feel a little overwhelming and even a little annoying. I get it. But I think if we can just start by trying to become “others aware” then we don’t have to know everything about every thing. I can carry a general attitude that says, “Hmm I don’t know much about that because I’ve never dealt with it so I’m going to listen wholeheartedly to the people who have.” We may not be able to know a lot about all the things but we can know a little about a lot more things. And that will carry us far, all of us.
I know I tend to be drawn to the things that have touched me and the people I love but there are plenty of things that haven’t. That doesn’t mean I’m not rubbing shoulders with those things, the grocery store, the workplace, school, church, you name it, they are everywhere. It doesn’t just apply to Autism either. It applies to anyone who is marginalized, anyone who struggles with something you don’t. Secret special needs, non-secret disabilities, race and cultural differences, people suffering trauma or dealing with grief. So many more things.
My kids secret special needs have open my eyes to the world of special needs. But it’s also led me to see that the things I thought were true about people who’d experienced things I hadn’t, maybe weren’t so true. And I need to approach all other people with that in my mind, with a heart that’s ready to listen. So when I get the chance to listen to someone who’s struggled with something I haven’t, whether it’s in person or via some type of media, I try to do so and broaden my perspective of what it’s like to be them, walking around in their shoes. I’m pretty sure that’s kinda (or exactly) what Jesus did. Put on a human body, walked around down here. With us. As us. I think Autism Awareness, and all the other awareness-es start here. When I follow in those footsteps and choose to put myself in others shoes, as them, I become “others aware,” aware in a very small way, of what its really like to be others in their shoes. Grace and compassion flow quickly and judgement falls flat. It’s a complete game changer. And its time to start changing this game.