Lake Geneva's an unusual place on a summer weekend. What most people imagine are the white, upper-class families who own summer properties in the area. This image fails to account for the Chicagoland daytrippers and their families, who can't afford to stay up here for an extended vacation, but flock to the beaches and parks with their picnic lunches for a budget mini-vacation, or the growing Latino population of the entire SE WI area (some put it at close to 20 percent in some communities). Many of those daytrippers are South Asian or Eastern European, so when you add in the local diversity, you get a much more cosmopolitan people-scape than one might've expected from Chicago's historic "Millionaires' Playground."
I took the kids to the park on Sunday, partly to let them run off some energy, partly to clear some air for Cam to get a little editing done. It was sunny and hot, and crowded with about a dozen large family groups grilling out at various stations around the place. From the bench where I tried to sit and relax (ha), long chunks of time passed in which I heard absolutely no English spoken at all, just a lively combination of Urdu, Russian, Spanish, Vietnamese, and other linguistic textures. As a student of languages, a world traveller, and a bleeding-heart liberal with aspirations for a global utopia, it made me happy in my heart.
Now, Connor, with his difficulty reading social signals that comes with Asperger's Syndrome, views the playground as a place to play with someone other than his annoying younger brother, whether or not he knows them. Whether or not they invited him to play is similarly irrelevant, and I have to keep a close watch on him in these situations for a number of reasons. One, he can be a real pest--no social signals means no sensitivity to when he's worn out his welcome. Two, his idea of fun can be overly energetic, too rough, and frequently inappropriate in subject matter and personal boundaries. Like a kid with Tourrette's has words they come back to over and over, kids with Asperger's often fixate on certain subjects, both in terms of favorites (for us, it's all about the superheroes. If it's super, in our house, it's super) and preoccupations. Connor's been long a bit obsessive about romantic topics--kissing (and, by proxy, lipstick), marriage, etc. This is not related to his tendency to express his enthusiasm and affection physically with hugs; that's just the way our family is, but his issues lead him to take that to uncomfortable lengths. Most of his friends and family have learned to live with this, but strangers can be (rightly) uneasy on the receiving end of his energetic affections.
So when I see him inserting himself into a playgroup or family at the playground, I make a point of introducing him and me to them early on, letting them know that if he starts being more trouble than fun, they should let both of us know right away; it's not their job to put up with my kid's behavior. And that's what I did when I saw him playing with a Pakistani family and their frisbee at the park Sunday.
I'm not just jumping to conclusions here; I'm a pretty well educated observer of humanity. They were clearly South Asian, with the adult women in salwar kameezes (plural?) and relaxed hijab. I could see at least three mom/dad pairs in play, as well as a 20-something guy, an older teen girl, and a grandparent or two in the shade. And when one of the toddlers got stuck on the playground equipment, a plaintive "Mamaji!!!" rang out.
Anyway, Connor invited himself into the frisbee game which had started up among one of the dads, the 20-something guy, and a boy about Connor's age; a little girl no more than a year old or so was the field hazard, wandering in and out of people's legs without a care in the world. They later brought out a kite, letting him have a pass at running with the string, and generally playing really wonderfully with him. Griff was playing with his match in age, a little boy whose sharing skills were not quite as advanced as Griff's are, but they invented a cute little rescue game, where one would be "stranded" on the slide, and the other, at the top, would help "pull them up to safety."
I made myself known early on, and only intervened a couple of times: to make sure he wasn't hogging the kite, to advise him on frisbee technique which would keep the toy from winging anyone in the head, and to remind him to keep his cool when "monkey in the middle" got a little intense for him (he tends to take prolonged stays in the middle somewhat personally...okay, a LOT personally). Every time I asked the dad if they needed a break from him, he smiled and shook his head, insisting he was behaving well and they were enjoying him. At the end of our time there (close to when I could see they were ready to sit and eat), I reminded him to thank them for letting him play with them and their stuff for so long; he did, and they were as gracious as ever.
Now, what I'm describing is pretty typical of the way I was raised; when we'd travel for weeks at a stretch, first in my grandparents' station wagon, later in my family's motor home, my brother, sister and I got tired of each other's company pretty darn quickly. So whomever we found to play with at whatever campground we landed in that night was more interesting from the word "Hi." We grew up first in Milwaukee, a town that prides itself on ethnic (if not always racial) diversity, then in Whitewater, a little college town with a number of programs that attracted foreign students, especially from Africa and Asia. My high school was only 500 students, and of the students of color (probably about 50, at a guess), only 2 were actually African-American; the other black students were actually children of African faculty members. I learned about the special needs of black people's hair and skin when a South African Episcopal bishop and his family moved in across the street from us and had to take showers at our house, because we had softened water and the parsonage didn't. I had a year-long interracial relationship, and didn't realize it was one until four years later.
None of this is meant to be self-congratulatory. I'm just making the point that I'm the kind of parent who's pleased that 2/3 of Connor's best friends from school are racially different than him and none of them seem to notice much or care. And here's where the Asperger's thing comes in.
Asperger's Syndrome is partially defined by an inability to pick up on social signals, both emotional and even just attention-getters (like following other people's gazes to find out what's so interesting). So, while we deal with the hurdles of teaching why empathy is a good thing, and why some jokes are or aren't funny, and how to know when you're getting on someone's nerves or making them uncomfortable, we apparently DON'T have to do much to teach Connor to treat everyone equally or that appearances can't tell us much about the worth of another person or even that just because all the other folks around seem a bit standoffish toward someone doesn't mean there's anything wrong with them.
And, whether they know it (or like it) or not, everyone gets hugs. Probably more than they wanted.
I told Connor later that I was proud of him for playing so nicely with that family, and treating them with the same affection and respect (or lack thereof) he gives everyone. I tried to explain that, because of their skin color or the way their moms were dressed, some people might have assumed that they were people to stay away from. I got blank stares for my trouble, and he suffered the extra-long hug I forced on him. He didn't get why I was making a big deal out of it, I could tell.
And that's how I learned my first upside to Asperger's Syndrome.