Individuals with disabilities seem to make some people nervous and the nervousness doesn't discriminate. You name a disability and someone in this wide world has probably felt nervous when interacting with an individual with that disability.
It is something that I've always been acutely aware of. Even as a teenager, I was always aware that when a person with a disability was present, some people just seemed to become a nervous wreck.
More recently I have noticed it when we have disabled volunteers attend my workplace. Several of the children become nervous and revert to being non-verbal toddlers. They lose their ability to talk and just stare. Even other adults visiting the centre start to look and act awkward.
Autism is an invisible disability. O and L look like every other kid, they just have odd mannerisms at times. When L is stimming we do get the occasional odd look and people become nervous and lost for words. You can see the awkwardness written all over their faces and I can tell what is running through their brains - what do I say, where do I look, do I stay, do I go .........
I'm not sure of the exact reason why people become nervous. I have thought about it long and hard and have come up with the following possibilities. It could be that they find it hard to empathize with the person, they may not be aware of what the disability actually is or how the disability effects the individual. The nervousness could stem from the fear of saying the wrong thing to the person or they may feel sorry for the individual and may genuinely not know how to interact appropriately with them.
So how do we educate children, teenagers, parents and other adults on how to NOT become nervous?
How do we educate people to be accepting of differences instead?
I'm not sure that I can answer of behalf of the entire disability sector, I can however answer on behalf of my little superheroes!
O and L may not always respond to people when they are spoken to, but they still like to be talked to. They are social little beings, they like to be included in conversation even when they don't feel like talking. They may just take a little longer to respond. They shouldn't be dismissed just because in that moment they don't feel like talking.
Talk to the person with the disability, rather than talking to the wheelchair or guide dog or prosthetic limb or the disability. Be respectful of the person and try to see beyond the disability. They have feelings, they have interests, they are just like everyone else.
If you are curious about how a person acts, speaks or looks then please ask respectful questions. The more questions you ask, the more informed you will be. Asking questions has the roll on effect of increasing awareness and acceptance.
I always tell people who are curious that L's brain is wired differently to that of others. He processes what you do and say very differently. It doesn't make him any less, he just has a different ability.
Please don't make assumptions about people and their disabilities. Too many people have wrong assumptions of autism and other disabilities. Please don't assume that because you have read an article on autism, you know everything about the disorder. The chances are that you don't know everything. Knowledge is always changing. At times, going to the source is the best way to gain knowledge.
Children learn so much from people who lead by example. If your child is staring at someone with a disability, go over and engage in friendly conversation with that person. The child is going to begin to learn that it is okay to ask questions, it is okay to be friendly with people who look and act differently from them.
I've heard many people make very cruel remarks about others, both people with disabilities and also towards others who may not have a disability. What sort of an example is that leading by? We try to teach our children that bullying is not okay and yet some adults think it is perfectly okay to mock others.
It is a normal trait to feel nervous, we've all felt this emotion at some stage. But perhaps we should all make a concerted effort to not to show our nervousness as children are exceptionally good at picking up on non-verbal cues.
Awkwardness and nervousness usually stems from ignorance and/or fear of the unknown.
As parents we are constantly learning on this journey called life and our ultimate goal is to impart the knowledge onto our children. It can be hard to determine which lessons would have the bigger impact on our children and which lessons have a greater importance.
The one thing that I constantly remind myself is to teach my little superheroes how to be accepting of others. As long as they are morally sound, then I don't have anything to worry about.