My son’s autism is invisible. When I first expressed my concerns over the fact that Henry was two and had only spoken two words and had stopped saying them months ago, our pediatrician told me that Henry looked just fine to him. Yes. A pediatrician. While it’s frightening that a medical professional, one that I love and respect, could not see passed the invisibility of my son’s disability, I can’t fully blame him. This is human nature. For us all, seeing means believing. And not seeing, not knowing, terrifies us. We find the worst parts of ourselves when we are faced with the unknown. None of us are innocents; I am guilty of the same well-intentioned yet harmful misconceptions.
Before my son was diagnosed, when I first moved into my current home, I noticed that there was a man who was walking by my house, a lot. Back and forth, he would walk passed my house. My instinct was to start locking 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, and misunderstands his behaviors, and judges him? What if they are afraid of him? I stopped locking my doors when I saw this man. I started to see the invisible cloak of autism spectrum disorder dissipate.
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 do see a man who is minding his own business, and enjoys long walks around my neighborhood, quite often.
Autism is 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 autism spectrum disorder, will at least limit the level of judgment he will undoubtedly be confronted with. But it will also leave him vulnerable to misunderstanding and unsolicited judgements. 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.
How do we reconcile these conflicting motivations for our perceptions? We can begin by ceasing our efforts to identify disability. Education is wonderful, and I’m all for it. We should all educate ourselves about disability. But even a thorough education is insufficient in identifying certain invisible disabilities. You could not possibly identify every unique disabled individual’s personal symptoms, traits, idiosyncrasies, self-regulating and repetitive behaviors.
Autism spectrum disorder is a great example. It is an umbrella diagnosis, meaning that it encompasses a wide range of disorders, each of which contains its own corresponding symptoms, and each individual’s coping mechanisms for these different disorders and symptoms are 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? Well, I have good news for you. The answer is free, and you don’t even have to google it. It already lies within you. Instead of looking for the disability in others, look for the humanity within yourself. It will not fail you. When you see someone that looks different than you, or even someone that looks the same as you, and you don’t understand them, and your instinct is to runaway, or stare, or judge, try not to. It’s that simple. Instead of looking at them, look within yourself.
Instead of looking for someone’s disabilities, look within yourself for the abilities that we all share. Compassion, kindness, acceptance; they are all at your disposal. There is something even more fundamental than education in life; humanity. You don’t need invisibility goggles to be a super hero. Sight is one of our least reliable senses. Our hearts, however, are fully equipped to see what our eyes cannot, every single time. Close your eyes, open your heart, and you will see more than an invisible disability; you will see people, beautiful people; you will see the very best of all us.
Originally published on The Mighty.