Everyone thought they knew Carly. Her family, her doctors, her therapists, even her twin sister.
Everyone was wrong.
Carly is a teenage girl with autism. For eleven years, her family loved and cared for her. They provided her with all the therapy she needed, but she experienced little, if any, progress in her rate of development. Despite 40+ hours of therapy per week, her family knew her as a mute girl whose physical habits of arm-flailing, head-banging, rocking, and tantrums indicated a severely developmentally disabled child—one whose intelligence level was significantly stunted.
The doctor who led Carly’s therapy program described her profile as “that of a child who was severely autistic and more than likely moderately mentally retarded.”
Until Carly “spoke” her first message using a computer keyboard.
Through the advantage of technology, she began communicating, first with her family, then with others. Her texted conversations revealed a Carly they did not know – and one who knew more than they thought. Her first message was “Hurt. Help.” Over the following three years, however, her conversations evolved to include fluent messages such as:
You don’t know what it feels like to be me, when you can’t sit still because your legs feel like they are on fire, or it feels like a hundred ants are crawling up your arms.
People look at me and assume I am dumb because I can’t talk.
I am autistic, but that is not who I am. Take time to know me before you judge me.
Carly’s dad described how he now views his daughter: “I stopped looking at her as a disabled person, and started looking at her as a sort of sassy, mischievous teenage girl.”
This problem of judging others based on their ability to converse does not only target the physically disabled. It’s easy to have negative opinions or low expectations of anyone who doesn’t communicate the way we do. We see it in the man with a Ph.D. who is clerking at the corner grocery store – no one will hire him in his field because he speaks with a strong accent. Or the painfully shy student in class who is judged “stupid” by her peers because she stutters when she speaks.
Whether we’re homeschooling children, teaching a Bible study class, or writing a book, how do we respond to our audience?
Writers are often counseled to “resist the urge to explain” – to communicate clearly and trust their audience to understand the subtleties of what they’re writing. Teachers are trained to use multiple teaching methods to reach all their students, whether those students have visual, auditory, or tactile learning styles.
Of course, not every person will be able to overcome their communication challenges the way Carly did. But whether we are writing, teaching, or simply living alongside people from all ages and all walks of life, let’s make an effort to look past the stereotypes – past the accents, clothing styles, and even past physical quirks or disabilities. It’s a matter of respect for each individual. In doing so, we may discover we rarely know others as well as we think we do.
And we may be surprised to learn they know more than we thought.