My son Nicholas, who is autistic, has never really differentiated between men and women. He’s not much of one for differentiation, anyway.
So, for example, Mr., Miss, and Mrs. don’t come naturally to him. For most of his life, he has been as likely to get the honorific wrong as right. He was, and still is, guessing. In fact, although his guesses are slightly more educated now at 14 years old, for many years it seemed like he was much more likely to get it wrong than right on the first try.
Or the second. Or third.
Or a year later.
The young woman serving as an aide would get a Mr., rather than a Miss, before her first name, while the middle-aged professional guy would get a Mrs. assigned to him, quite possibly for the first time in his life.
They rarely found it cute.
Now, just beginning high school, Nicholas is encountering the honorific Ms. in school, basically for the first time. (One teacher in elementary school preferred Ms., but that was more for me than him.) We’re basically focused on two things: first, pronunciation (with the “z” sound), and second, not calling the male gym teacher-coach “Ms.”
Nicholas also intellectually struggled for a very long time to differentiate between boys and girls — his classmates, other children on the playground. He just didn’t know.
He also didn’t care. They were all friends.
What I’m describing is his disinclination toward cognitive differentiation. By all appearances, however, biologically in his preferences and orientation, he does differentiate: he seems to like girls, in just the way teenagers (and adults) use the term “like.”
But, I think, in his thoughts he’s just finding himself liking an individual, or individuals. Gender expression doesn’t really play into it consciously or cognitively, even though it happens to be girls who spin him around like a top and who might sometimes receive his furtive glances poolside.
Even as his sexuality continues to develop as a teenager, he still has a profound innocence. Just spending time with someone he likes makes him giggle. The possibility of holding hands would be a magnificent and thrilling threshold for Nicholas.
Well, for me, too, but that’s a different post.
Still, he is 14 going on 15, and now there are complications: Playdates with girls are now seen as dates, at least by everyone but him and me, and so completely friend-type interactions with girls are much harder to come by. He misses them.
As with so much that is my son, it’s easy to see how much good it would do if everyone had his perspective and shared an utter unawareness of gender expression. One of our society’s and world’s most profound and seemingly eternal areas of bias, discrimination, and injury would vanish.
So I can deeply admire my child’s absence of differentiation of people in their gender expression — as well as in their race, nationality, skin color, height, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and everything else — and wish to emulate it and promote it as a beautiful perspective that everyone might meaningfully choose, while still noting its real-life practical complications.
Beyond honorifics and love life, there is the conundrum of restrooms.
Because he doesn’t differentiate between women and men, as terms or as signs on doors, selecting the appropriate bathroom independently was long a challenge for Nicholas. But, after many years, he kind of got that down in rote fashion: “Men.”
So: a couple of weekends ago I gave him a little end-of-summer trip to the beach. We went to the Charleston-Sullivan’s Island-Mount Pleasant area of South Carolina — literally straight down one street from where we live in North Carolina, actually — for relaxation and play. Nicholas loves the beach, swimming in the ocean, relaxing on blankets or beach chairs. When we drove down, he was smiling ear to ear, so thrilled and so sweetly, in just the special way he once reserved for his autism summer camps. His happiness made me so happy, in turn: I’m delighted he can still get to such a place of innocence and magic.
One of those mornings, we hopped over to Folly Beach and first stopped at a restaurant we’d gone to on a previous trip: Rita’s. Before leaving Rita’s to walk over to the beach, I sent Nicholas to go to the bathroom.
At some point I realized he was taking a long time — a very long time. He finally came back out to our table. Without wanting to embarrass him, I gently asked if everything was okay: “Yes.”
Alright. That took a while, didn’t it? “Yes.”
Did you get stuck? “Yes.”
Alright. Well, that was helpful. But sometimes in life we all get stuck, so okay.
I then got up to go to the bathroom, too, before we headed over to the beach. And here’s what I found on the restaurant’s two bathroom doors, which were facing each other …
Yes. Wow. Got it.
I can only imagine how long Nicholas was standing between these doors trying to figure out what to do and where to go. Were these the bathrooms? If he looked at the lips first … well, we all have lips. And why were two snakes rearing up and staring at each other on the other door?
No “Men” sign to be found.
I have no idea if he ended up in one of these rooms — and if so, which one — or if he just eventually skipped going to the bathroom entirely, which might explain why he was ready to leave after a couple of hours at the beach.
Setting aside differentiation of gender expression, it was a pointed reminder to me about Nicholas’ challenges in generalization of learned skills and that the world, seen through a certain perspective, really makes no sense whatsoever.
He’s just guessing, as we all are just about all the time, but many of us fake it pretty well … some of the time.
So that was a lesson: I probably should always check out the bathroom first just to make sure everything kind of fits the working model. That must have been — stressful, confusing, embarrassing, or just dumbfounding — for Nicholas.
I didn’t quite learn the lesson, though; lately I’ve been resistant to lessons. Two days later — it might have even been the next night, but let’s say two days later to pretend I can remember parenting lessons for at least 24 hours — we were at a restaurant (really, a fantastic restaurant) in Mount Pleasant called The Granary.
Before dessert, I asked Nicholas if he needed to go to the restroom.
Thank God he said no.
Because then I went. And this is what I found on the restaurant’s two bathroom doors, which were side by side, I think …
There are some things I’ll never be able to prepare Nicholas for. Honestly, there are many things I’ve never been able to prepare myself for adequately. Clarifying the differences between women and men — whatever differences there may be or that we as individuals or societies construct — isn’t something I do very well or the common culture does very well. Better Nicholas’ perspective, without question.
But he still has to go to the bathroom sometimes.
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This had me laughing out loud! Love your insights! :)
Thank you for the sweet, generous comment, Kim!
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