Sometimes Lines Are Blurred
As a mother of two boys, one of whom is on the autism spectrum, I experience the stories of the #metoo movement from a multiplicity of perspectives.
As a woman in the world, I’ve had encounters ranging from the frightening (a man locking me in a room with him and pulling out the key) to the sleazy (a professor intimating that he’d sponsor my project if I’d pose nude for his art class) to the merely disgusting (a guy jerking off in front of me in a public park). I’m relieved and cautiously heartened to see the culture finally begin to shift.
As a mom, I take every opportunity to alert my sons – ages 10 and 14 - to sexism and gender discrimination in its many forms – through language, media imagery, externally imposed constructs of masculinity and femininity, etcetera. We’ve discussed consent and the right of each person to decide if, when, and how they want to be touched.
As the mother of a person with autism, however, there’s an aspect of the whole conversation that frightens me. My older son, D, by virtue of his neurological difference, has trouble reading non-verbal social cues. Because of this, I’m terrified that he’ll make some mistake that will get him into trouble.
A year ago something happened that haunts me still.
One night when D was thirteen, we attended a potluck at the home of a friendly acquaintance. While there, he met a twelve-year-old girl, S, with whom he was very taken. D sat on the couch chatting with S for much of the evening, with S’s parents flanking them on either side. At one point I came and sat in a nearby armchair, watching and occasionally participating in their conversation.
I noticed D was leaning a bit against S. As is common with kids on the autism spectrum, he has somewhat low muscle tone, or hypotonia, which gives him a tendency to drape himself against whoever or whatever’s near. Watching them, I felt slightly uncomfortable and wondered whether I should intervene. I examined S’s face and the faces of her parents to see if the physical contact was bothering them. To my eye, they appeared happy and relaxed.
At one point, D asked S if she wanted to marry him in ten years. She laughed and said she wasn’t thinking about marriage yet. Her father chimed in and asked if D would marry him instead.
“You’re almost fifty and I’m thirteen,” said D. “That would be inappropriate!”
Everyone chuckled and agreed that such a wide age spread was less than ideal.
Later D said to S, “We’re not boyfriend and girlfriend, okay?”
“But will you be my best friend?” he continued.
She smiled and seemed to acquiesce.
Observing S and her parents, I felt that D was in a safe environment. They seemed untroubled and even amused. Earlier, in the kitchen, I’d mentioned to S’s mom that D was on the spectrum, and she’d said she’d figured that out from his methodical questions. She’d worked with kids on the spectrum, she said, and she enjoyed them.
At the evening’s end, D asked S for her phone number. She didn’t have her own phone, but her mom and I exchanged info and discussed getting together to hang out. I went home thinking, “Well, that went well.”
Apparently I was wrong. On Wednesday morning an email with “had to write” in the subject line arrived from M, the acquaintance who’d given the potluck. She said that S’s parents were “appalled,” and that D’s behavior was completely inappropriate. In M’s words, D’s “aggressiveness, unwanted attention, and…harassment needed to be interrupted.” As host, M would have said something at the time, she wrote, but “the interaction of sexism and different abilities rights left me confused.”
M’s email left me confused and shaken, struggling to make sense of what had transpired. It’s true I’d felt uncomfortable, constantly on the edge of saying something about D’s encroachment on S’s physical space. The reason I hadn’t spoken up was based on my observations of S and her parents, who appeared at ease.
I reached out to S’s mom via email. I apologized for any distress D’s behavior caused S. I shared my own confusion about the incident and invited S’s mom to share with me anything she wanted to about her family’s experience. She responded with a kind and thoughtful message, in which she told me that she too thought everything was fine until they got in the car and S started yelling at her. She didn’t realize that S wanted her parents to speak up on her behalf about the fact that D was invading her space. S’s mom said that her daughter was okay, but she—the mom—had learned an important lesson about the need to check in with her daughter about how she was feeling.
S’s mother’s email was comforting to me after M’s alarmist language. But the essential dilemma remains. If neither I nor S’s own mother couldn’t tell that she was upset, how could an adolescent boy whose specific challenge lies in the area of reading social cues be expected to know?
This encounter, like so many others, left me with the core dilemma familiar to all parents: How do I protect my child?
And of course the answer is: we can’t. Not completely. Whatever our children’s particular challenges, we can only do our best to teach them the vital lessons of paying attention, communicating, drawing their own boundaries, and respecting those of others, and hope against hope that the lessons stick and the world treats them gently.
And so I offer up this maternal plea to the #metoo conversation in hopes of engendering nuanced discourse and increased compassion. Before you judge someone for not responding to non-verbal cues, please be aware that there are those for whom those cues may be indecipherable. And please, everyone, for all our sakes… Use your words. Speak clearly. Listen. And be kind.