Yesterday morning, Janey and I stopped at the Rite Aid on the way to school. Janey needed Cheez-Its, her preferred school snack, so we did a quick before school shop. The cashier was a teenager who was friendly but seemed, to be frank, a little clueless. Janey was in her silent mode---very quiet, very slow-moving, like she was walking through sand or something. The cashier very much wanted to connect with her. We were getting a heavily discounted chocolate bunny, so she asked Janey "Is that bunny for you?" Janey of course did not answer at all. The cashier said "Oh, she's tired! She looks very tired. Aren't you tired?" Normally at this point I'd explain Janey was autistic, but I was tired, even if Janey wasn't really, so I just said nothing. The cashier wasn't one to give up, though. She asked Janey "How old are you? Where do you go to school?" Janey---well, you know---stony silence. The cashier said "Oh, she's shy! She's very shy!" I just smiled and tried to get done with paying. Then the cashier said "Can you say goodbye to me, sweetie?" Janey did talk then, but not to say goodbye. She said in a run-together way, as she talks when she's in the slow mode "openthebunnyyesorno", meaning "Can you open the chocolate bunny right now, YES or NO?" I said "We'll open it in the car" The cashier said "Oh, does she get speech therapy? I used to get that too! It's okay, sweetie, you can talk to me!" Janey---no answer. Finally, as we were walking out, the cashier said "You'll be happier when you get to school and see your friends, won't you? Have a good day!"
I didn't mind the whole interchange. It was friendly and much better than staring, or ignoring. But it got me thinking. It's a big question in autism----if there ISN'T an autistic epidemic, where were all the autistic kids in the past? I'm not weighing in on the epidemic or not question---I don't know enough to say. But I do know that if you don't know what autism is, which in the past, many people did not, you'd approach it like the cashier. You'd assign it to a category you do understand---tired, shy, in need of speech therapy---and then if those didn't work, most likely, in the past, you'd call it retardation. To use today's correct term, you'd call it intellectual disability.
We have a whole day now called Autism Awareness Day. And it's working---most people are aware of autism. 30 or 40 years ago, most people weren't. But I do think there were plenty of autistic kids then, and kids with Aspergers, and kids with everything in between. I remember some of them, now, looking back. My parents do too. Mostly we remember kids with high functioning autism, because kids like Janey probably weren't too visible. They were in institutions, or they were kept home, because they weren't welcome in schools. Even in the small town I grew up in, I was only vaguely aware of a few children that went to the special school in Rockland (strangely enough, called the Henderson School, the same name as Janey's school, although not named for the same person) They were not much part of the community.
Autism doesn't always show itself clearly. The Janey the cashier saw yesterday very well could have been a shy child, a tired child. It's something to keep in mind when trying to figure out this whole autism mystery.