I know that gait in a split second. The one where I can tell that someone is autistic. It’s a little stiffer. The arms, they hang differently. The eyes blink and look intent on, say, a door. The door he is waiting to go through.
His brother comes. They look like identical twins. His brother’s body looks a little more relaxed and he guides his stiffer brother through the door to the line up at Adam’s favourite burger joint.
“What do you want on your burger, buddy?” He pats his brother on the back.
The stiffer brother wants the “asian” onions, which are really only plain fried onions. I stand behind with Adam while the same young man briskly puts his two fingers in front of his eyes. Then his hand goes down.
I tap his brother on the shoulder. I don’t usually do this. It’s Adam’s PD Day and just before the holidays.
“My son is similar,” I say, smiling.
“Oh, he’s autistic?” replies the fluid brother, the one who opened the door.
“Yes,” I reply, Adam looking at the hot peppers he has taken to recently. His eyes move towards the hands in latex gloves behind the glass, slathering burgers with mustard and relish. “He’s a wonderful boy. I am lucky,” I say that because I feel I have to. I do feel lucky but I’m hoping the conversation won’t take a negative turn, whatever that might be. After a tap on the shoulder, I could be entering territory I am not really prepared for today. Yet, I am curious. “Are you twins?” I continue.
“Nah, he’s my older brother,” his face is friendly, and he seems to relish in the fact that his brother is older. He’s relaxed talking to me. “We’re out today shoveling snow for money,” he says in that hey buddy kind of voice.
“That’s great,” I say. I get a little more story about the two brothers as Adam looks as if he’s staring down the mustard behind the glass. The other brother, right ahead of Adam is looking at the asian onions, but I have a feeling he is paying attention. I know that Adam does. He will now respond to many things that I say, precisely when it appears he isn’t listening. Adam often surprises me with his comments that often come a few long seconds, sometimes minutes, after I have finished talking.
“It’s really nice for me to see everyone out and about. I think for parents it’s good for us to see that we all belong in our communities. I hope that older autistic people will help Adam. It gives me hope.”
We share a few niceties. The burgers are served and we eat in separate booths. Adam first eats the hot peppers, then pickles, tomatoes and finally, the onions, picking small pieces with a delicate pincer grip. The actual hamburger is left to last, and he only takes a few bites. Suddenly, I feel a tap on my shoulder.
“Merry Christmas to you, eh?” says the brother. His autistic brother is standing further back, facing our direction.
“Hey, thanks so much. Merry Christmas to you too.” I turn to face his brother and smile. Although I wonder why I didn’t address his brother directly while standing in the line, I’m still hoping that my way of saying hello was okay. I’ve addressed and worked with other autistic adults before, but uncertainty lingers. I cringed inside, thinking of myself as that kind of person who addresses the aide, and not the handicapped individual. You know, like one typical person talking to another typical person as if the handicapped person is incapable. Maybe I was trying to find a way to segue into a possible inclusive conversation? Perhaps I was just trying to find that communion, there, standing in line?
Approaching any new person isn’t easy. I know I’m appreciative of people who try to approach me. Respect isn’t always smooth. I just wanted to talk and then I had thought of it afterwards like this. Still, I think I’ll commit to tripping, fumbling and making mistakes. As long as it keeps leading me to new people and we can keep learning.
As Adam reached for his last piece of hamburger covered in mustard, I stared out the window, other customers surrounding us in their booths.