A year or so ago the Full Spectrum family was having brunch with another couple and their children. Other Couple had a son a little older than G who was neurotypical, “cool” and athletic but usually willing to accommodate G’s Pokemon obsession during family get-togethers.
Knowing we were to see this family, G had been planning for days which Pokemon cards he would bring to show Other Couple’s Son, a fellow he admired quite a bit.
When we showed up at their door, though, Son had a friend over. A similarly “cool” friend, of his own age. G—always wary of three -- immediately tore into an excited preventative monologue about Pokemon for Son. Son just as immediately announced, scornfully and for benefit of Friend, “I hate Pokemon.”
G’s little face crumpled.
There are kinds of valor that are not in history books, but that matter greatly all the same. Among these, we ought to include the bravery of a little boy who has just been dissed and dismissed and stands his ground there in the hallway.
“C’mon G, let’s go get some food,” I said, throwing an arm around him and pulling him toward the kitchen -- probably embarrassing him but making him to know he was very loved.
A little later Other Wife was showing me some renovations around the house while our husbands, Z and G hung out with the bagels.
“You know,” she confided, “This is really hard for Son.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, genuinely perplexed.
“Dealing with G being here.”
“What do you mean?” I still had no idea what she meant.
“When I was a little girl I had a cousin who used to come over and she was…well, like we used to say, ‘retarded,’ and it was very hard for me to be around her.”
I stood there, speechless. Was she saying that G, who has autism and is academically gifted, is “retarded?” Or that being around “retarded” people is terribly hard for the “non-retarded?”
I had been warned by several friends about this woman. They called her “Crazy Carla.”* Having been a victim of smear campaigns myself (small town viciousness, epic yoga world pettiness), I always try to give people the benefit of the doubt. I was aware from my own interactions with her that Carla was high strung, but I hadn’t seen the full extent of her possible “craziness” until now.
I couldn’t help but feel, though, that what she was saying aloud might reflect the way a lot of other people feel without giving voice to those feelings.
She backtracked a little: “I’m not exactly saying that G is a ‘retard’ but Son doesn’t know how to deal with having someone…like him around! So that’s, you know, really hard on him. I feel bad for him.”
Where I am at on the Spectrum, I have a really hard time expressing myself when I am overwhelmed by sensory or emotional input. After this statement, I literally shut down. I have no memory of responding in any way.
Retorts I wish had popped into my mind in a timely fashion:
“Really? Is your child reading Hawking?”
“Oh…I guess retards should be treated with disdain!”
“It’s okay -- G has a hard time with A-holes and I think he’s doing pretty well with it today.”
“Probably you should have just pretended your cousin didn’t exist! It’s very inconvenient when people are different.”
“You just made me want to die…for so many reasons.”
Or even -- but I was not and still am not personally enlightened and big enough for this one -- “What do you mean?”
We went back down to the kitchen. Pardner said later that my face was grey. We left after awhile.
I never said anything. Much like when people ask, regarding Z, “Is she your REAL child?” I feel like, if you really just opened your mouth and said that, what is there to say? I do – obviously! – believe in working with people whenever possible around accepting differences, universal equality, and so on. Nevertheless, there are people who are receptive to expanding their empathy and understanding and people who are willfully ignorant. (Please see Ann Coulter and http://www.change.org/petitions/ann-coulter-public-apology-for-constantly-using-the-r-word!)
There’s an argument to be made for reclaiming a word such as “retard,” too. Along with feminists (and others) reclaiming derogatory words about women, people of different ethnicities (and others) reclaiming disparaging words about their ethnic groups (insofar as such things exist in any clear way), Wiccans (and others) reclaiming the word “Witch,’ and so forth, certain individuals can and do lay claim to appropriating “retard” for their own positive purposes. That is a different issue.
In this day and age, there is no excuse for using the word “retard” about a child. None.
As for “Crazy,” well, most of my favorite people are a little nuts. Good nuts.
Full Spectrum Mama
* Crazy Carla’s name has been changed (the Carla part, not the Crazy).