Whether it was the first day of class, first day at a new job, or for any other of the multitude of appointments I’ve had so far in my life, I have always been asked some variation of the following question regarding my last name (Tecpanecatl): “What is that?” My personal favorites were the few times someone looked at me with raised eyebrows and came right out with “What are you?” I don’t believe they intended to be derogatory but that particular question did not deserve a response. Since the name is unnatural to them, they could not help but feed their curiosity with what appeared to be an innocent question. Confused by something new and because they had no point of reference in their mind, they looked for information in order to place me in a cultural or ethnic group familiar to them. Just about everyone feels comfortable when they are able to place people and actions in separate and distinct categories. We have been taught that our actions should meet certain expectations and behavior is strictly monitored from birth. This has created and maintained stereotypes that ostracize anyone that doesn’t fit neatly into any specific category. This pattern of thinking bothers me and I feel it is an obstacle that all autism parents and advocates face on a daily basis.
My oldest son is an adorable and loving 4 year old with autism whose behavior would be considered quirky by those unfamiliar with developmental disabilities. If my name is enough to temporarily throw someone off than I imagine an encounter with my son would turn their world upside down. Telling someone he has autism does not sufficiently explain his behavior. When we are out in public I can see the questions in their stares as my son has a meltdown or starts talking to himself with a type of speech that is not understandable to them. They seem to be thinking to themselves “What is that? What’s wrong with him?” I see their responses and have come to realize that just because more people have heard of autism does not mean they care enough to learn about how it affects a person’s life. Just because my son may not do things the same as other kids does not mean you have the right to judge him or his parents. If people took the time to learn anything about autism and developmental disabilities they would understand why my son may not answer your question (his limited speech prevents any type of conversation), why he refuses to eat certain foods, why he is unable to tolerate haircuts or doctor visits and why he obsessively repeats phrases he hears on TV. These are only a few examples of how someone may label him ‘odd’ without really knowing anything about him. I encourage everyone to spend some time researching autism and its effect on the individual’s development. I read and write about autism because it directly affects my life and also with the hope that we can begin to deconstruct stereotypes that are harmful to those labeled as different. The next time you or someone you encounter falls back on an old stereotype, think about who benefits from that train of thought and most importantly who it is hurting.