Anyone that has been reading this blog for a while will have already have worked out that I am all about raising awareness for autism. And I spend a lot of time trying to teach tolerance so that my own children and other children and adults on the autistic spectrum can be more readily accepted into society.
It is important to me, and that’s why I put so much effort into advocating for my kids. But I am also fully aware that tolerance is not just something that everyone else needs to learn. It’s something that I have had to learn personally and something that I definitely try to teach my own children too.
Lately I have had the perfect opportunity to be able to teach my children tolerance from the other side of the fence because my Mum has been living here for almost 2 weeks now, with another few more to come. She is in a wheelchair due to a bad fall in her home and a badly broken foot. She needs to have a knee replacement on her “good” leg so crutches or a walking frame aren’t possible and her own home is filled with stairs. Her only choices were hospital, a respite home or here.
Naturally she chose to be with family. (Like I would have given her a choice!)
It all happened so quickly that I only found out the day before she arrived that she was coming the next afternoon, so I didn’t have very long to prepare the boys for her visit. I hadn’t anticipated it being a problem because they love and adore my Mum and she is one person that a surprise visit from wouldn’t rock their boats too much. So I put it to the back of my mind and set to work preparing her room and making the house a little bit more wheelchair friendly.
I told the kids that afternoon and they were very excited that she was coming.
Well…..they were. Right up until I told them about the wheelchair.
I wondered why this was disturbing them so much and I tried to talk to them about it with no success. Harley was edgy and moody and not at all himself the next morning. He knew Grandma would be there when school finished and he wasn’t nearly as excited as he usually is.
I wondered if he was really coping as well with the surprise visit as I had first imagined? And if I’d made the right decision? My boys don’t handle change very well (as is part of their diagnosis) and it crossed my mind that I may have bitten off more than I could chew. Add to that the fact that Mum was extremely hesitant to come in the first place due to the fact that she felt she was increasing my already heavy workload, but I assured her that it would be a cold day in hell before I would let her go to a respite centre and that I WANTED her to come. (I wasn’t going to take no for an answer anyway )
My fears were allayed as soon as the boys saw Mum and talked with her. It took a few minutes of observing her from afar and hesitating to get too close but once they realised that she was ‘safe’, their trepidations vanished completely.
But it wasn’t until dinner that night when Mum’s friend **Mrs Giggles who had driven Mum here, dropped a thought into conversation that had honestly never even occurred to me at all!
She offered up the possibility that perhaps the only “visual” that the boys had in their heads of a wheelchair was someone with a severe disability or an obvious developmental delay that they may have seen at a shopping centre. They didn’t have the life experience to draw on to be able to imagine what to expect with Grandma in a wheelchair. They had no previous images or memories to draw on and this idea suddenly gave me a haunting image of my dear Dad.
Not long before Dad passed away, we all went out to a local pizza place for dinner. The cancer had spread to Dad’s bones and it was agonizing for him to even walk and the solution was for him to walk while pushing a shopping trolley (cart) into the restaurant because we didn’t have a walking frame. He winced in pain with every step and he had already started to fade away. He was a shadow of his former self and it’s one of the last times that my kids saw him alive, because a few short weeks later we were attending his funeral.
So for Harley – seeing someone unable to walk had a frightening end result. Maybe he thought that Grandma was going to die too?
I remember Harley was asking me the night before she arrived if Grandma would still be able to talk with him. And his biggest concern was that she wouldn’t be able to give him one of her famous back rubs. He couldn’t get his head around the fact that she was still going to be ‘Grandma’. He was troubled and very very nervous until he saw for himself that the wheelchair wasn’t ‘who Grandma is’. And this was a green light for me. I knew that something had clicked for him and I wanted to explore this with him further.
I’ve since had the opportunity to sit down and chat with Harley about diversity. We’ve discussed how people are still people even if they look, sound or act differently and he seems to have a better understanding. We’ve chatted about blind people with guide dogs, people who need a wheelchair for whatever reason, people with walking canes, crutches and frames and he even brought up the example of the child that we often see at the local shopping centre who is about 14 and still needs to wear a bib. It was a fabulous segue into learning about people with less obvious disabilities like Aspergers.
And Grandma?…..well Grandma may not be able to walk, but she can still play board games, tickle, cuddle and rub backs, chat (or listen to monologues) , read books and give rides on her lap in the wheelchair up and down the hallway!
Harley told me today that Grandma is still fun and exactly the same as before and this really made my heart swell because I knew at that moment that he gets it.
He has learned a wonderful lesson. He’s learned that it doesn’t matter what you look like, it matters what’s on the inside. He’s learned that people come in all kinds of packages and that different is not wrong.
And as a mother – that makes me super proud.
**The pseudonym ‘Mrs Giggles’ comes from my wonderful relationship with her and the fact that we always seem to giggle when we’re together..I LOVE her)