Miss Kate is not shy. It’s one of the most notable ways her autism makes her unique. We rarely venture into public that Kate does not strike up a conversation with a complete stranger. Often, these strangers, are deemed Kate’s new best friend before we even make it back to our van.
These ‘best friends’ may come in the form of a baby she accosted in its stroller, a mom choosing ingredients for a meal none of her children will eat or, and more often than not, an older man browsing the diabetic candy.
We walk along the aisles and I answer her questions absent-mindedly, forever grateful that her service dog is keeping her near me, rather than chasing down the aforementioned baby. She asks things like:
“Mama, should we take turns saying sumfing nice about me?”
And I smile down at her and say:
“I love you, Kate.”
And she says:
“Yeah, me too.”
Her ego is strong, as you can see, which is probably why she never hesitates to engage with another person. It’s hard to say, and the older she gets the less comfortable I feel inferring how she feels, but it would seem that she assumes chatting with her is your privilege. And let’s face it, it quite often is.
She comes on strong; I’ve said it before, and it can be a turnoff to her peers, though the adults find it quite entertaining, at times.
Kate is an equal opportunity lover of people. She simply does not care if her friends are the people she meets out and about or the children in her class.
However, her somewhat aggressive approach has made it difficult for Kate to make meaningful connections with children her own age. I suppose I shoulder some of the blame because she's begun to call her peers her “fans” and her “subscribers”. Her social media presence has made her a little difficult to say the least.
So, I asked her, because I'm wondering how she relates to her classmates. I wonder how she attempts to make friends.
“Kate, how do you make friends?”
You see a dog out in public and with his velvety ears, smooth coat and impeccable behavior and you simply cannot stop yourself from approaching him. How wonderful, you think to yourself; a clever dog wearing a vest and moving around the grocery store like a little gentleman. Will wonders never cease? You remember seeing a documentary on working dogs a few short years ago and it was so very interesting. You think you'll just pop over with a kind smile and a handful of questions for his handler. Surely, she'll wan't to discuss the dog, as she must be very proud of him.
Sound like you?
If so, I have something very important to tell you about those stellar service dogs and their handlers. And because you have such a strong interest in them you'll likely listen very intently when I say:
LEAVE THE DOG AND HIS PEOPLE ALONE.
Not just because they look busy, or because they are already conversing with someone else, but because no matter what they are doing they have the right to do it without being asked extremely personal and private questions by strangers and yes, even friends.
In order to make people better understand my point, I'll simply switch out the term 'service dog' and insert the term 'wheelchair' and make a list of things that have been said to me, my husband and my service dog friends:
After all, a service dog, like a wheelchair, provides his user help with a disability that is, again, NONE of your business. I won't go on about why someone might need a service dog because I have done that, here and here and even here, and frankly, I'm getting tired of explaining it.
And you should know, that though I advocate for my daughter on this blog, that I don't have to do it while I'm getting groceries, watching a hockey game or any other time I am out in public unless I want, and you can't make me. I don't mean to sound cranky but you're making me crazy.
Okay, so here goes. The list of questions that we service dog users and handlers get every single time we step out of the house (and I reserve the right to add to this list at any time):
Is that wheelchair in training?
OMG, I love that wheelchair. What are you using it for?
Excuse me, but do you mind if I just touch your wheelchair, (the leather) looks so soft?
So, why do you have a wheelchair? My cousin had one for PTSD.
Oh Cool! I saw a documentary on wheelchairs once and it was awesome. My mother knew a guy whose who had a wheelchair once.
You can't have wheelchairs in here!
Is that a real wheelchair?
That poor wheelchair.
Emotional Support wheelchair?
and my personal favorite:
Prayers for your wheelchair.
It's been bothering me; her fearlessness. Not just for obvious reasons, like her leaving safe places or taking risks and making some very questionable decisions. It's been nagging at me that as she nears her seventh birthday that her love of strangers and her extremely high level of self-confidence is going to become a bigger problem.
If you've yet to meet Kate, in person or via this blog, you'll need to know a few things about her for this to make sense. Kate has autism. Her autism is hers and hers alone. Like all autisms, it's unique to its person and their environment. Kate’s happens to present as a neurodevelopmental disorder resulting in communication deficits, issues with social interaction and play, rigid-thinking, repetitive obsessions and behaviours and a confidence in herself that would put Kimye to shame. Stick that definition in your DSM.
While I've simplified Kate's version of autism with the above paragraph, it will give you the basics of what you need to know to understand our most current issue.
To frame the problem I'll explain an incident that happened over these brutally unscheduled and unpredictable holidays.
We decided to attend a basketball game. Armed with electronics, Pokemon cards and a wrestler or two we figured we could manage at least the first half before her highness decided she was done.
Instead, during half-time she spied some boys horsing around in front of her. She made a dash for the boys because the promise of wrestling and otherwise getting her sensory-seeking on was too much.
I grabbed her and held her back, as this was not my first rodeo. Kate bolts towards anything she finds interesting and I had spotted the boys just as she had.
“Mama! I'm going to play with my friends!”
“Kate, we don't know those boys. We aren't supposed to talk to strangers.”
“Mama, I have to show dem my Pokemon cards!”
She's desperate to go now. She sees them moving away from our section and she is trying to peel my fingers off of her arm so she can join them.
I imagine, for a second because that’s all I'll allow myself, the look on the boys faces when she ploughs into them with her Spider-Man bookbag and a fist full of Pokemon cards. They're older, eleven at least, and they'll stop horsing around long enough to stare at the little blonde girl with the LeBronesque headband that she demanded to wear (because basketball) and her pink t-shirt, and they’ll wonder what to do. She dig out a wrestler and begin her version of play. The boys will back off, looking for a parent to save them. What is she saying? What does she want? They will ultimately decide that the kindest thing to do is to walk away. They’ll move quickly to a new area leaving her behind and continue with their game. Undeterred, she will gather her things and move to follow them. I'd swoop in and carry her away. She would protest and cry wanting to be with her ‘friends’.
We’ve made countless attempts to help Kate intellectualize the social rules of play. So far, it hasn't stuck.
So you see, as endearing as her confidence is to some, to her peers it is frightening and weird.
Right now, she cannot read the fear or disapproval on their faces. She doesn't register those things. Which is a blessing, I suppose. It's painful to watch her keep going back for more and even harder to tear her away but thankfully she is not bothered by much these days. She's a tad frustrated that her mother won't let her play with whoever she wishes; the boys she spotted at the basketball game, the baby at the grocery store (whom she tried lifting from her carriage) and the FED EX guy whom she credits for everything she's ever received in the mail. But, otherwise she doesn't take it personally. She's happy and that's key, isn't it?
For now it's our problem and I guess that’s okay.
Grace and Kate's mom. (Shanell)