Barb Cohen

Mom, Am I Disabled?

Is Society Progressing in Its Response to Autism?

The steps may be small, but give plaudits to those who try to be inclusive.

Posted Oct 16, 2017

College professors do not call to check in with parents. I had been warned about this aspect of transition repeatedly and anticipated my impending ignorance with both dread and enthusiasm. When my autistic daughter, Sam, enrolled in a college class this fall, I understood the rules. So when her professor called me, I knew I would not enjoy the conversation.

The Phone Call/starmanseries/CC BY 2.0
Source: The Phone Call/starmanseries/CC BY 2.0

A television crew will be videotaping one of his lectures this week for part of a nationally televised series about…something. I never found out, and it’s not relevant. What is relevant is the producer’s suggestion that my daughter be asked to skip class that day. His vision for the film requires a classroom of students who are attentive but silent. Sam’s enthusiasm, storehouse of facts, and difficulty distinguishing between rhetorical and real questions worry the producer. My daughter may not be capable of being seen but not heard. The producer hopes the professor can meet privately with Sam at some point and repeat the lecture away from the camera. I knew I would not enjoy this conversation.

To his credit, the professor has rejected this request. As he told me, Sam is a member of the class, and she should be present. Could I please talk to her, however, about staying quiet? For just this one class, will she be able to refrain from blurting out the many thoughts he usually appreciates? I said I would do my best to talk to her, and she would do her best to remain silent. The professor could not have been more pleasant, but I did not enjoy the conversation.

Baby steps, a friend reminds me. Society, represented by the television producer, still wants a level of conformity that excludes our citizens who look or act “inconvenient.” If he is so intent on having a silent classroom, I wonder, why does he not tape the lecture in an empty room? The only conclusion I can reach is that he wants the intimacy or the academic aura provided by students, but he thinks my child will not be a good prop with which to decorate his ideal environment.

baby steps/Brent Connell/CC BY 2.0
Source: baby steps/Brent Connell/CC BY 2.0

At the same time, society, as represented by the professor, is growing more inclusive and accepting. My friend wonders if the professor would have challenged the producer 10 years ago. Progress, perhaps? Sam has accommodations for a legally recognized disability, but the professor’s concern for her seems to extend beyond his legally mandated obligations. He sounds as if he truly appreciates her contributions and wants her to be present. Has he become more accepting, or has he always been this way? I’ll never know, but I am thankful for this baby step.

I am trying to stay focused on my gratitude toward the professor, but his generous comments have left me with sadness more profound than my anger at the television producer. The other students are wonderfully patient with Sam, he told me. When the class met last week at a local museum, some of the students were kind enough to walk and talk with her.

No question about it, I am relieved to hear that the other students do not ridicule or bully Sam. Kindness is a good thing; I always appreciate kindness. But every parent of a child who is significantly atypical understands the pain of hearing this constant refrain about the kindness of others. Kind means not friends. Kind means compassion, not camaraderie. Kind means there is no mutual enjoyment, no reciprocal relationship—at least not as far as the party who is being kind is concerned. Kind means your child stops receiving invitations to birthday parties after the obligatory ones in elementary school.

Maybe the students who walked with Sam at the museum were not being kind. I would like to think that the professor was mistaken, that they stayed with her because they enjoyed her interesting, insightful comments. Maybe they benefited from Sam’s company as much as she did from theirs. I have always thought that she would find her place in the adult world, a place in which other people with similar interests are her true friends. Still, I know how difficult she can be to engage. I love her deeply, but even I can be challenged to maintain a conversation with her. Maybe I should just be grateful for so much kindness.

I knew I was not going to enjoy this phone conversation. I was right.