I’ve spent much of my life trying to be invisible. And I’m really good at it. I’m beginning to realize, though, that invisibility isn’t the great equalizer I thought it was.
Sure, it protects you from attacks. Sometimes. But it also means other people don’t see when you are attacked.
Sure, it means you don’t get embarrassed asking stupid questions in front of the whole class. But it also means you don’t get your questions answered; you don’t get help when you need it.
Sure, it means you don’t get rejected asking someone to dance. But you also don’t get to dance.
Okay, that last one is skating a little close to a sappy song, but you get my point.
Zoo Keeper, who is seven and in first grade, appears to take after me in the invisibility department. We (his team of therapists, teachers, and parents) are trying to teach him to speak up in class when he doesn’t understand something. We’re trying to get him to ask for help instead of sitting, staring at the project in front of him without a clue how to begin, because he didn’t understand the sequence of instructions. I never did. I’m pretty smart and I have my own way of learning, but I could have done a much better, efficient job of it if I’d learned to ask questions of other people along the way. I was always afraid of admitting I didn’t know something that I assumed was obvious to everyone else. I don’t want that for Zoo Keeper.
Autism, itself, can be invisible to the naked eye. To the eye uninitiated into the club.
Now, in addition to question-asking and the like that are directly related to autism, we’re dealing with a bully situation at school. It’s been going on a while, I think, but Zoo Keeper is just now sharing how it’s involved him. It’s not physical, just teasing. The school now says the kid wants to be friends with Zoo Keeper, but doesn’t understand why Zoo Keeper won’t join in with his play.
Well, because autism. But the kid doesn’t understand that. You can’t see Z’s autism. It’s invisible. Even if the kid could see it, he wouldn’t know what it means.
It means he doesn’t understand your play, Kid. I know you’ve seen him use his imagination to create elaborate zoos in his play, so you know he can pretend, but why won’t he pretend with you. It’s like your imagination speaks a different language than his. Because of his autism, he can’t understand your imagination.
He doesn’t understand your play. When you say he punched you, he doesn’t understand that you’re pretending; trying to play a game with him. He doesn’t understand why you’d say that when he clearly didn’t hit you and never would. He thinks you’re saying something bad about him. About his character. And that makes him feel bad about himself. I understand now that this was not your intention, that you just wanted to play, but that’s how it made him feel.
I’m sure you also don’t understand why he prefers to walk around the playground at recess instead of playing games with you. Sometimes it takes a lot of energy for people with autism to pay attention in class and talk to friends and make their bodies stay still so they can learn. They need to replace that energy somehow. Zoo Keeper’s way of doing that is to walk around the playground thinking about stuff he likes to do. It would take him more energy to play with people and he doesn’t always have that energy to spare.
Sometimes people with autism have a special interest; something they like to think about and talk about all the time. Zoo Keeper likes to talk about zoos and zoo animals. If you want to play with him, you can try asking if he wants to play something having to do with animals or zoos.
He doesn’t understand that other people sometimes get tired of talking about zoos or playing games focused on zoos. It’s okay to tell him politely that you’d like to talk about or play something else. If he still just wants to play zoo, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t like you, just as you moving on to play with someone else doesn’t mean you don’t like him.
Many autistic people try to make themselves invisible so that we don’t stick out. So that nobody notices that we’re a little different. We’re hoping invisibility will help us blend in. The problem is that we’re not actually invisible. We do stick out. That might not be a problem if the autism itself weren’t invisible. So sometimes we seem aloof or uninterested in other people when we’re really just trying to blend in. And sometimes we need to be alone, but we don’t have a way to express that need without offending those who want to spend time with us.
I no longer view invisibility as the great equalizer. Instead, I think maybe we need more understanding. Understanding, which bring us closer together, but with enough space to be ourselves.