Not everybody falls for talking pigs: The gift of difference.

Once, in the middle of a hellacious rain storm, I took a teething 11-month old shopping. Definitely it was ill-advised. Probably I had no choice. It was a few days shy of my husband’s first Father’s Day, and I hadn’t even so much as managed a home-made greeting card to acknowledge the way he weathered those early days of parenthood. So it was that I found myself in the middle of an independent book store with a crying – strike that, howling – infant and the sideways glances of strangers resting heavy upon my back.

Amidst futile attempts to comfort the baby, I reached for whatever text I could grab from that carefully-appointed table full of “Father’s Day” reads meant to appeal to a caricature of a dad (but probably not my husband): the history of the game of football, the art of grilling a perfect burger, common car problems and how to fix them. It’s the thought that counts (and I wasn’t thinking clearly): With one hand, I grabbed a book about the “gods” of rock and, with the other, held fast to my flailing baby, whispering something like a bribe that, in just a minute, I’d buy her a special book (or every book in the store), for entertaining her great mess of a mother with a shopping trip. Fresh out of good ideas, I beelined for the children’s section, where I snatched up the first colorful picture book I could find about a family of talking pigs. I began reading it aloud. “Piggies! ‘Mama Pig said to Papa Pig – ’”

“She hates that book,” interrupted a little voice. It came from a girl, perhaps seven, wearing a brown bob, thick pink glasses and a quizzical, disapproving expression. Her mother rushed to her side, coaxing her to mind her own business, apologizing profusely on her behalf.

“It’s ok,” I said, raising the metaphorical white flag. “She’s probably right.”

“I am right,” said the girl, shaking her head. “That book is terrible. Pigs can’t talk. You should read her this one,” she said, in monotone, passing me a hard-backed copy of Me…Jane, an illustrated account of the childhood and coming of age of Jane Goodall.

Deep breath. “Or maybe you can read it to her?” Mom looked on: Are you sure? I nodded.

My astute young friend, almost smiling, began to read. And immediately the baby was quiet. For the next 20 minutes she read book after book – biographies, volumes on science, math, history – out loud, a mesmerized infant perched at her side. Her mother looked on in disbelief (relief?) that somewhat mirrored my own.

When she finished – the clock struck 3:00pm, and my pint-sized superhero informed us that she had to leave for swimming class – she said goodbye to the baby. “It was nice to meet you. Maybe, if you come to this store at the same time next week, I’ll see you here.”

As she collected her things, she turned to me. “If your baby starts to cry again once I’m gone, remember that not everybody falls for talking pigs. I have something called Asperger’s. I’d never fall for a talking pig.”

The universe spoke: Getting to the heart of people involves paying attention to the stuff that makes us different, the stuff that makes us special, the stuff that makes us a gift. That afternoon in the bookstore, a small stranger – with her perspective, her insight and, yes, her less-than-subtle call to humility – was mine.

– Joni Kusminsky, J.D., Manager of Recruitment and Communications

April is Autism Awareness Month. For more information about Autism and Autism Spectrum Disorders, visit Autism Speaks!

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