My son’s autism is invisible. When I first expressed my concern that Henry was two and had only spoken two words and had stopped saying them months ago, our pediatrician told me Henry looked just fine to him. Yes. A pediatrician. While it’s frightening that a medical professional, one I love and respect, could not see past the invisibility of my son’s disability, I can’t fully blame him. This is human nature. For many of us, seeing means believing. And not seeing, not knowing, terrifies us. We can find the worst parts of ourselves when we are faced with the unknown. I am guilty of the same well-intentioned, yet harmful misconceptions.
Perception vs reality
Before my son was diagnosed, when I first moved into my current home, there was a man who walked by my house, a lot. Back and forth, he walked past my house. My instinct was to lock my doors. Weeks passed and I began to see the man walking everywhere, all around town. I remained cautious. A few months later, Henry received his diagnosis, and I began to learn all about autism spectrum disorder.
One day, as I drove down my street and passed the man pacing my block, it dawned on me. Maybe he is autistic. Maybe his repetitive behavior that soothes him is walking. What if one day Henry finds comfort in long walks? What if someone sees him, misunderstands his behaviors and judges him? What if they are afraid of him? I began to look on this man with compassion. I began to look upon him with the same kindness that I can only pray that others will bestow upon my son. I haven’t seen the scary man surveying my neighborhood in a long time. However, I quite often do see a man who minds his own business and enjoys long walks around my neighborhood.
Autism can be invisible. This fact is a double-edged sword. It will help my son in life, and it will hurt him at times. The fact that one cannot see his autism spectrum disorder, will at least impact how people will judge him. It will also leave him vulnerable to misunderstanding and unsolicited judgments. So much of how we deal with situations and people is based on our perceptions. Sometimes our perceptions are born from experience, knowledge, and our personal ideologies. But sometimes they are born from fear, misunderstanding, and ignorance.
One person with autism
How do we reconcile these conflicting motivations from our perceptions? We can begin ceasing our efforts to identify the disability. Education is wonderful, and I’m all for it. We should all educate ourselves about disability. But even a thorough education can be insufficient in identifying certain invisible disabilities. You could not possibly identify every disabled individual’s personal symptoms, traits, idiosyncrasies, self-regulating, and repetitive behaviors.
Autism spectrum disorder can be a great example. It is an umbrella diagnosis, meaning it encompasses a wide range of symptoms, and each individual’s coping mechanisms for these different symptoms is unique. In other words, it’s a mixed bag. And they don’t say "if you know one person with autism, you know one person with autism” for no reason.
So if we cannot possibly learn how to identify each individual’s invisible disability through self-education, then what can we possibly do? Instead of looking for the disability in others, look for the humanity you share. When you see someone who looks different than you or even someone who looks the same as you, and you don’t understand them and your instinct is to run away, or stare, or judge, try not to. It’s that simple.
Instead of looking for someone’s disabilities, look within yourself for what we all share. Compassion, kindness, acceptance — they are all at your at your disposal. There is something even more fundamental than education in life: humanity. Sight can be one of our least reliable senses. Our hearts, however, are fully equipped to see what our eyes cannot. Close your eyes, open your heart, and you will see more than an invisible disability — you will see people. Beautiful people.
This article was originally published on TheMighty.com.