Sunday, April 12, 2009

Smiling Strangers In Our Midst

On the same day when Sandra Cantu's Sunday School teacher was arrested in connection with the 8-year old girl's murder, I watched my 7 year old son follow an absolute stranger and disappear briefly from my sight.

The woman who Boo walked away with wasn't the boogeywoman. She was friendly, smiling, approaching him in the children's section of the library. Boo was sitting at a round table, engrossed in reading The 3-D Library of the Human Body: The Head and Neck - Learning How We Use Our Muscles . (I think he's hoping to cure The Dean's herniated discs. If so, go to it, pal.) He's been asking a lot of questions about the human body, particularly the brain and the mind, and since my English/Communications degree and The Dean's masters in history are proving futile in giving him answers, I suggested a trip to the library.

Boo was within my eye and earshot as I searched for his latest request, a book about blood. I heard the woman talking with him, asking questions about what he was reading. The young boy with her bounced all over the children's room, seemingly uninterested in anything, perhaps a compadre of Boo's inhabiting the autism spectrum.

"What reading level is he at?" said the woman, by way of greeting.

"Um ... I don't really know exactly," I said.

"You don't? I can't believe he's reading such advanced books."

"Yeah, well ...." I replied. "That's what he does." Because he has Aspergers! I wanted to scream.

"Did you teach him to read like that?" she inquired.

"Well, no, he just sort of picked it up," I answered. "He's just that kind of kid."

She continued to linger around, gawking at Boo like he would be sprouting a 3-D head and neck like the ones he was reading about. I wanted to go over to the New Releases, and normally would have left the kids at the table, as it was still within eyesight of where I wanted to browse. (This is not a very large library.) Instead, we moved to a closer table and Boo resumed reading.

His anxiety about being away from The Dean started fomenting, so I took that as our cue to depart. Betty and Boo moved from the table to two chairs directly parallel to the circulation desk as the librarian, a flighty woman who could be kin to Edith Bunker, began her running commentary on every one of the 50 or so books we were checking out.

And over the loquacious librarian I heard her again.

"You go to the same school as my son! Come with me."

Exorcist-like, I whipped my head around to see, - literally, 10 feet away - the woman we encountered earlier leading Boo away - around the stacks of books, back to the corner of the children's room.

"This is Cornelius," I heard her say.

"Oh, my, we have a problem, actually two problems," said the librarian. "You're at the limit for borrowing, you are only allowed 99 books, what should we do?"

I thrust Betty's library card at her, straining to keep the woman and Boo in my sights.

"Yo, Boo? Can you come back here? NOW!" I barked, quiet rules be damned. And then, "Let's put the rest of the books on this card, please," I said, handing the librarian Betty's card.

"Oh, righty then, yes I think we can do that - yes, we can. Mmmm hmmm."

By now, Boo reappeared. "Stay right here with Mommy, please, OK, sweetie?"

Remember, his anxiety level was increasing anyway, so reprimanding him right then and there would not have been pretty. Nor was it an option to leave all our books there. He was only gone from my view for a few seconds - and the woman's intent was probably only to foster a friendship, albeit temporary, with her son and mine.


The three of us walked out into the parking lot and once secured into the booster seats, I exhaled. "Now, both of you, when we get home, Daddy and I are going to need to talk with you about something very important."

"What did I do? Am I in trouble?" Boo said.

"No, no, no ... you're not in trouble. But," I began as prelude. "Now, I am not angry with you and you're not in trouble and you're not going to get a time-out. But, it made me very scared to see you walk off with that lady."


"Well, we don't know her ..."

"But she was nice."

And so, I'd imagine, was Sandra Cantu's Sunday School teacher at one time. (Although the chick's mug shot certainly gives an impression of someone angry as all hell, does it not?)

"Boo, why did you go with that lady?" I asked, quietly.

"Because she was a grown-up and she told me to."

My heart sank under the monumental weight of the literal Aspie mind. Of course going off with a complete stranger seemed OK to Boo. She was a grown up, smiling, a nice enough lady. She wanted him to meet Cornelius. Again, that was probably her true intent. Probably.

"Do you know Cornelius from school?" I asked. "Is he in your class or on your bus?"

"No, I don't know him," Boo replied. "I was just meeting him."

And so, back in the family room, we talked, the four of us, about strangers. About how some people might seem nice, but it is never OK to walk off with someone. How Mommy or Daddy need to know where you are all the time.

And where Boo is, I realized, is still in a place where everyone is a friendly mom. Where everyone smiles and where stranger danger is nonexistent. So with that, how do you teach these abstract concepts to someone on the autism spectrum, someone like Boo who is incapable of lying? To someone so innocent and trusting, completely unaware of the utterly incomprehensible workings of the human brain and mind?

For those of you with kids on the autism spectrum, I'd love to hear your thoughts on effective ways of teaching and reinforcing these sorts of lessons to our kids. Thanks.


Niksmom said...

O.M.G. I wanted to throw up as I read this. This is my worst nightmare, that Nik would wander off with someone b/c they were nice and that he couldn't evencall for me if he needed me b/c of his lack of spoken language.

Thank God you were there to witness and to call him back. I can't wait to hear what others have to share about teachng the lesson of "strangers" to kids with ASD.

I need to go squeeze my boy *tight* right now.

kristenspina said...

We talk about it a lot. And I take every opportunity to remind my son what's ok and what's not ok. But how much does he really get it? I don't know.

Recently, my nephew opened the door for a stranger while my sister was in the shower. And he's just an average "know it all" six year old who isn't afraid of anything or anyone.

I worry sometimes that I'm going to make my son too afraid of the world around him, but better that then the alternative.

TC said...

I'll never forget watching my daughter, at 5 years of age, start talking to a man changing a tire on a van on my street. (She was with a friend at the time; they were playing in front of our house and I was up on the porch.) As I walked toward them, I heard him ask her to get him a tool FROM THE BACK OF HIS VAN and I watched her GET INTO THE BACK OF THE VAN.

Now, I have to admit, I knew this man; he lives up a block or two from us and his son is friends with our neighbor's son. I knew why he was there (borrowing tools from my neighbor to change the tire). I knew his name, his wife's name, his dog's name. So when I went ROARING with anger to her and yanked her out of the van and up to our porch and proceeded to let her have it, full force, to see all my fear and really LEARN from it, he was confused. But all I had to say to him when he came up to the porch to try to intervene was, "I know you. But SHE DOESN'T. And she got in the back of your van." When the realization hit him, he was visibly shaken and said, "Oh my god. You're right. It just didn't even occur to me."

It's been almost seven years, and just thinking about that still gets my heart racing.

How do you teach them? I just do not know. My daughter is about as not-spectrummy as they come (it's my son, who was only one at the time, who has special needs), and has always been mature in her understanding of advanced concepts. We'd talked about stranger danger. But she simply did not, could not, put those abstract conversations together with this nice man changing a tire on the street. He couldn't be a stranger! HE WAS NICE!

All of which is to say that I don't think there's a foolproof lesson plan for ANY kind of kid. You teach, you review, you talk...and then you pray that when push comes to shove, the lesson comes to mind, or the 'dangerous stranger' turns out to be only the guy from up the street.

Betty and Boo's Mommy said...

Niksmom, Kristen, and TC - thanks so much for your thoughtful comments and suggestions. You're all right ... all we can do as parents is to keep talking, keep reinforcing the messages we need to impart, and hope they stay. Thank you, all of you.

Eva said...

That's really scary; I'm not a mom, so I can't give you any advice, but I'm sorry. :/ I was nanny to my niece, and I always watched her like a hawk: I'd take her to play at the train table at Barnes & Noble and other kids would be there with no parent/babysitter in sight! it boggles my mind!

I'm just me... said...

How terrifying! I can only imagine how you felt as you saw Boo walk off with this lady. What gets me is this lady is a parent, SHE should have known better than to ask someone else's kid to walk off with her! I talk to Tink all the time about strangers, I hope it is sticking with her.