The words I had hoped for finally reached my ears. Noah proclaimed, “Mom, I did it! I made a friend!” Moving and starting a new school has been a challenge for us both, but the social impairments that accompany Noah’s autism prevent him for making friends easily. I eagerly asked what his name was and he said, “Lauren.” Before I could comment on that bit of information, Noah added this: “And one of the things that makes her so cool is that she gets to carry a stick around all the time! You know why? Because she is TOTALLY blind. Cool huh?”
I paused at this comment. Inside I already knew that truth, Noah had gravitated toward the special education class once again. We’ve worked hard to pull him out of the self-contained classroom, hoping that exposure to “normal people” (the neurotypical - meaning those with typically functioning brains) would increase his social skills. As it turns out, being around normal kids just amplifies his differences and makes Noah stand out more. Still, I had prayed for maybe a shy, average little boy. Instead, Noah had found the opportunity to seek out a member of the self-contained class at recess. He went on to describe Lauren to me physically. I asked what they did at recess since Lauren couldn’t navigate the playground very well. He said, “We sit and listen.”
Hypocrite that I am, I was still somewhat disappointed that Noah wasn’t connecting to typically functioning people. But I decided to be glad that Noah had reached out to anyone at all. Its strange how after everything I have studied and written, I still occasionally miss the grander picture that we are not just bodies and minds alone, but being created in the image of God. All of us.
Flash forward two weeks and Noah races into the living room at seven o’clock one evening to announce that he wants to do something special for his teachers and friends. He proclaimed that it was time for us to bake chocolate chip cookies. Hoping I didn’t have all the ingredients (Drat – they were all there!) I was motivated to get up off the couch by Noah’s persistence.
He mixed the batter using my Oster hand mixer and the noise reducing headphone my dad used to wear around jet engines in his job at Delta Airlines. Noah happily spooned them on to cookie sheets and we proceeded to make around four-dozen cookies. I got out cellophane bags, markers and tags to address each bag of goodies. Soon, Noah list of four primary teachers had grown to include the paraprofessional that is helping him learn the recorder in music class, the teacher across the hall from his homeroom (who has probably helped him at this locker), the school secretary who has embraced him as a member of the safety patrol, and the principal. Just when I thought we were done he shouted, “Oh! I can’t forget Tony and Lauren!” (Tony is another friend Noah made from Lauren’s class.)
The next day on the way home from school I asked Noah how everyone liked his gifts. He smiled and showed me a note on a piece of off-white card stock. Closer inspection showed that the note had been carefully hand lettered by an adult just under Braille imprints. The note read, “Thank you for always asking how I am and saying hi.” Still smiling, Noah said, “Its from my friend Lauren.” Choking back tears, I drove home in silence. But inside I was begging for repentance for being disappointed that Noah hadn’t made friends with a normal kid.
When I got home I asked to see the note and it was then that I remembered Noah’s comment about their playground activity. He had said that they just “sit and listen.” From Lauren’s perspective, this is a busy and on-going activity. It is one of the primary ways she “sees” the world around her. It was then that I realized that she was thanking Noah for simply slowing down to notice her and for speaking to her. Which implies that Lauren realizes there are a lot of people who don’t notice her – or who do and fail to slow down to speak to her. Of course, she senses these people around her. She can feel them and hear their presence. But Noah, of all people, engaged with her.
I use the expression “of all people” because Noah is, diagnostically speaking, not very capable at starting and sustaining conversation. He is no brilliant conversationalist. As it turns out, Lauren doesn’t need very much conversation. Just saying “hi” is all she really wanted. And Noah is capable of just about that. Additionally, I think what Lauren really enjoys is someone who will experience the world alongside her. Just sitting and listening on the playground with someone else is a gift to her. Lauren was created for community the same way we are. And Noah is able to participate in community with Lauren in a way that is very full and rich and meaningful for them both.
I’ve gleaned a few insights from Noah’s recent encounter. First, I must to continue to develop a sense that people are more than traditional ideas about mind (intelligence) and body. I think this will help me see people as God sees them and then classifications like “normal” will be obsolete. Secondly, we are created for community. Sometimes, others help those of us who aren’t as socially adept into community. Noah reached out to Lauren. Ideally, someone else will reach out to Noah. Who will I reach out to?
As we reach out in love to draw others into community, never under-estimate the power of a simple “hello.” Just acknowledging someone’s presence with a friendly gesture can be all it takes to extend God’s love toward him or her. Speaking as the parent of a child with disabilities, I can say that if you want to be the highlight of their entire week, just notice them. Often we’ve been noticed with stares and giggles in a “take-a-look-at-that-freak-show” kind of way. Obviously that isn’t what I am talking about. I mean to resist the urge to ignore they are there. Sometimes we politely ignore their existence as if it is in poor taste to admit disabled people exist. Or maybe we think it is contagious. Or maybe if we get too close, we will realize we aren’t as different from them as we’d like to believe we are.
So next time you encounter the marginalized in society – those broken because of sin, the disabled, people struggling with addiction, welfare moms, or just the down-and-out – do Noah and I a favor. Extend kindness. Acknowledge their existence. Embrace them into God’s community where the word normal doesn’t exist.
And say “hi” for me.