I have an adult friend, let’s call him Bill, who struggles to live in a world that he understands through the context of autism. During the day he works at his various jobs within a community of other adults who also experience life challenges. In the evenings he goes to his group home and interacts with his housemates. On the weekends, though, he is free to wander around town, meeting with friends and acquaintances at fast food restaurants, Walmart, the park, ballgames, and church. He does not drive, so on any given day he may walk upward of six miles, regardless of the weather. As long as he is safe and reports back to his house staff at given times, he is free to spend his time as he wishes.
Several months ago, a group of concerned citizens pooled their resources and procured a bicycle for Bill, complete with a basket for carrying things. They also gave him a lock and key so he could lock up his bike when he wasn’t riding it. Every time I see Bill he has his house key and his bike lock key on a lanyard around his neck. He has told me he is very careful to lock his bike every time he goes anywhere.
The other night Bill came to church, as he does occasionally. There used to be a bicycle rack beside the church, and even though the rack is no longer there, that is where Bill understands he should leave his bike when he comes to church. Bill left after the church service was over, but came back a few minutes later saying that his bike was gone. I went with him to look for it, and it was indeed gone. It had been stolen. I asked Bill if he had locked it up. Yes, he had, he said. But then I asked him what he had locked it to, and he didn’t understand. When he had been given the lock and key, it had been assumed that Bill understood that a bicycle needs to be chained to something that cannot be moved. Bill didn’t understand this, but he didn’t understand that he didn’t understand, so he couldn’t ask for clarification. He understood how to lock and unlock the lock, so as far as he knew, he knew how to lock up his bike. Likewise, those who gave Bill the bike and lock didn’t understand that Bill didn’t understand, so they didn’t know they needed to show him how to lock up his bike.
Anger is the first reaction most people experience when they discover that their property has been stolen. But that was not true for Bill. He was upset that his bike was missing, yes. But most importantly, he was afraid he would get in trouble, that people would be mad at him, and that word would get around that his bike was stolen and he would be seen as a bad person. His reaction took me by surprise, and yet, when I stopped to consider, I realized that this was a very typical reaction for the people I know who live with autism. One of the most important things for my autistic acquaintances is to know that I value them as people. To be in trouble with someone is to have that relationship called into question, and life, therefore, becomes insecure and frightening.
As I thought about the incident, I wondered how many times I have pushed people into frightening corners because I assumed they understood things the same way I did. I wondered how much love and respect I have destroyed because I tend to assume that my way of thinking and doing things is the right, and possibly the only, way to think and do. I thought about Bob Dylan’s famous lyrics, “How many times must a man look up before he can see the sky?” and wondered how many times I have connected someone to my own agendas instead of really seeing the person.
The Native Americans suggest that we not criticize anyone until we have walked a mile in their shoes. There are those in whose shoes I cannot walk, such as my autistic friend’s, because my brain is wired differently. This holds true for those who are addicted to harmful substances, those who deal with depression and suicidal thoughts, those who steal or murder or commit fraud, as well as those who are lesbian, gay, and trans-gender. I cannot live life their way because I don’t understand things the same way they do. But I know I do not understand these things, so I have a choice. I can choose to ignore these “different” people because they sometimes complicate my life and make me uncomfortable. Or I can choose to try to understand life from their perspective so that empathy and meaningful dialog are possible on both sides.
I don’t want to be the one who shoves people aside because they understand life differently from me. I don’t want to be the one who grudgingly accepts others – as long as they stay in their own part of the world and don’t interfere with my life. I want to be the one who is willing to love and accept, to value them as people within my own world, accepting them as people I need to learn to understand, rather than the other way around. I want to be the one who, for all the Bills out there, makes it my privilege and duty to experience living as a two-way adventure, each helping the other understand the complexities of this thing we call life.