In a poignant article about his life as an “other,” Arturo Madrid talks about growing up in a small village in New Mexico, going on to graduate school at UCLA, and then teaching at Dartmouth College. As a Mexican-American, he describes how it feels to be “the other.” “Being the other means feeling different…It means going outside the game, outside the circle…being on the edges, on the margins, on the periphery. Otherness means feeling excluded, closed out, precluded, even disdained and scorned. It produces a sense of isolation, of apartness, of disconnectedness, of alienation.” (“Missing People and Others,” from Change) Madrid talks about how his physical appearance, accent, and name sometimes confuse those around him. School did not erase his sense of otherness, nor did the academic credentials he accumulated as he got older.
Often, it is hard for me to “read” Jimmy and know what he is feeling. While I know he is aware of being different, how he feels about that is another thing? For example, how does he feel when people stare at him for all the wrong reasons? Years ago, how did he feel when his Sunday school class went to church and the pews were full, except for the space on either side of Jimmy? Did he even notice that? Growing up, how did he feel being ignored or excluded when it came time for kids in our neighborhood to send out invitations to their birthday parties or play a game of kickball?
Like many individuals with autism, Jimmy continues to experience otherness. I feel it as well, especially when I am with him. Interestingly, I think otherness has brought the two of us closer together. Because he found it so difficult to find playmates as a child, Jimmy and I would spend hours upon hours together, when I got home from work each day and during weekends.
Jimmy’s otherness made me more aware and understanding of my students, many of whom were poor, black, stigmatized, stereotyped, and gifted. To this day, Jimmy’s otherness makes me reevaluate my own biases and priorities. And Jimmy’s otherness makes me thankful for those times when he is simply treated like someone who is your “average Joe.”
Recently, I read an article in the Washington Post titled, “The simple moment when my autistic son was treated like any other person.” It was written by a mom who took her son, Nat, to Starbucks. She ordered an ice coffee, and Nat ordered a chocolate chip cookie, his favorite. Only Nat pronounced it, “chaw-chih coogie.” Instead of being dumbfounded, the barista simply said to Nat, chocolate chip cookie?” The barista did not flinch, nor did he look to Nat’s mom for help. The barista’s did not treat Nat as an other; rather, Nat was just another customer. And that simple act made all the difference in the world.
Please note: I am currently writing a book about my entire family and how we have grown over the years, in large part because of Jimmy. My son Jimmy is a middle-aged adult on the autism spectrum. The voices and perspectives of my two daughters and wife as well as other friends of Jimmy are included throughout. It is a real, uplifting, and remarkable story; one which I have wanted to share for a long time. The book will be published later this year.
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