I've always been one to sort of sit back and observe others in action. I don't just mean people-watching, but also in everyday life, family gatherings, and so forth. If that makes it seem as though I don't engage in what is going on around me, let me assure you that this is not the case.
I believe I developed this habit (or talent?) from my upbringing. When I was younger, of course the adults in my family group didn't really care for my opinion or whatever childish things I might have to say. I also had no desire to step into the dangerous realm of possibly making said adults angry with me, especially the dreaded child-beating terror known as Alice. And heaven forbid that I made Gram weary of having me around - if so, I would be back in the dreaded lion's den.
As I got older and more free to say what was on my mind, I still kept a lot of what I was thinking to myself. This was partly from Gram's training (a future blog post, I'm fairly certain) and from my innate knowledge that sometimes things are best left unsaid. Undoubtedly the first person to say least said, soonest mended spoke from experience. Watch what you say, and you can prevent pain to others and damage to your relationships with them.
Someone whom I have quietly observed for quite some time now is a young man named Grant, who is a member of my church. Now, before you get all in a dither and quit reading because I used the word church, please reconsider. I am not here to discuss faith or non-faith or anything of that ilk. I'm just giving context for the situation.
Trent and I don't go to church every week. Our health, to put it mildly, is unusual. With Trent being immunosuppressed because of kidney transplants and me having systemic lupus, it seems as if we can catch germs from across the street, to say nothing of being in a closed area with lots of people. Just last month we picked up a bug at church that made itself at home chez Lunatic for a little more than two weeks. For this reason, we sit in the very back row because we hope that most of the cooties will travel toward the front of the church, the way everyone's facing.
Back to Grant. Over the years I have noticed that Grant processes the stimuli around him in a different way than most of the rest of us do. When I see him during the singing of hymns, for example, I can almost feel that the volume of the music (noise?) is painful to him. He has developed coping mechanisms to deal with this, and what they are do not matter to this story.
Grant also sits in the back row as we do. His family sits a row or two in front of him. I know that he loves his family, but he needs to have his space, literally. When I sat down in the back row one Sunday just a few chairs over from his spot by the door, I knew I was too close. The look on his face said it all. I told him that we'd move down the row a bit, and helped him move the chairs between his seat and ours. His mother's face was full of relief at our being easygoing and understanding, and the day progressed beautifully.
We have developed a routine, on the Sundays when we are up to attending church, that keeps Grant in mind. If the chairs in the back row are folding rather than stacking chairs, I will remove about five of them between where I sit and Grant's spot. Sometimes he's there before me and has already done it, but sometimes we work together. And sometimes, like today, we get there first and I create a space for Grant before he arrives.
So today started off really well. A dear sweet lady came into the building with us and I told her that I needed to clear the chairs for Grant and she understood completely. I sat and waited, hoping that I had moved enough chairs for him to feel at ease. As I said, things started off well. Grant's mother, Susan, is always so grateful for us being understanding. This gratitude breaks my heart. It tells me that there are some people who only see him with their eyes and not their hearts. I saw one of them in action today.
A man came into the chapel after the service was well underway. Although there were several empty seats in front of us, he grabbed one of the folded chairs and set it right next to Grant. And I mean close. I saw that Grant was asking him not to sit there, but the man ignored him. I quietly got up, stepped over to him, and whispered, "He has a hard time with people sitting next to him." I felt that was all that I needed to say. Was it necessary for me to go into a long discussion that Grant is probably somewhere on the Autism Spectrum and having someone sit that close to him is more than he can bear? I respect Grant and his family far too much for that.
The man moved his chair about a foot away from Grant, waited a few moments, said something to him, and clasped his hand in a handshake. (Grant knows I am safe and I never grab his hand. Usually he will give me a handshake, but sometimes he will not. I feel great joy on the handshake days!) He then got up and moved to another seat. I smiled inside myself when Grant waited a few moments and pulled the chair over to himself, folded it shut, and leaned it against the wall where it had been before. But I could see that he was overwhelmed. Within a minute or so, he had to leave the room. The man sat in his new chair for about a minute and decided to leave the chapel. He made an exaggerated point of looking down at Grant's empty chair, looking at me, and shaking his head in disdain.
In the twenty or so minutes that remained of the meeting, Grant had to get up and leave another couple of times. I knew that the whole day might be a struggle for him, and decided to speak with his parents after the service. After I gave them a brief rundown of what had happened, I made them an impassioned promise. "Whenever I am here, I will always do whatever I can to help Grant feel safe and comfortable." I understand how his mind works. He is different from everyone else. But aren't we all?
What happened today was not a major event. There was no bad guy, and there was no hero. There was misunderstanding, which happens everywhere and every day. It becomes all too easy to see others' actions with our eyes and forget to use our hearts. Our differences are part of what makes us who we are. We are all frail beings who love and fear and dream and hunger and so many other things. And when it comes to those differences, I hope to remember the wonderful mother of Temple Grandin, who taught her autistic daughter this beautiful philosophy, "Different, not less than."
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