It’s summer, 1987. I’m 12 years old. I’m at my grandmother’s house, roaming around the yard. The goal is to look busy, avoid people; hide in plain site.
Chickens dart around the yard. Goats behind a fence press their faces through the boards of their enclosure, mutter staccato bleats. I watch the animals, lost in my head. I walk in big, loping circles, looking for interesting rocks. When I find one, I pick it up, hurl it at a tree, move on to the next rock.
The family is gathered for a reunion. Most are inside, eating, conversing. A few older cousins are in the workshop, looking at an ancient tractor.
I try to quickly walk past them. A cousin says, “M. What’s with that? Your arms?”
“What do you mean?”
“When you walk, they don’t move. You look…”
He moves his arms to his side, holds them rigid; squares his shoulders…mirroring my posture.
“You look like a robot. You gotta relax, loosen up or something.”
I look off to the side, too frustrated to respond.
He mirrors my posture again, says, “The way you walk…guys don’t walk that way. Just…relax.”
I stomp off, sit beneath a tree, wait out the humiliation.
I’ve already noticed that guys my age are beginning to walk in a different way. And I’m aware that my posture is not cooperating…my arms just hang there, still, refusing to help me out. My shoulders are too stiff.
The awkward gait I had as a child is following me into adolescence. I don’t know at this time about the autism spectrum…I just know I’m not connecting with people, meshing with the social world around me. And now there are even physical differences creating distance between myself and others.
I see all of this…but my cousin is the first person to explicitly refer to my gait. He won’t be the last.
I sit under that tree, burning with anger, feeling more self-conscious than ever.
Today, all these years later, I could care less about my gait. It’s not different in any major way…but that’s kind of the point. Even minor differences with body language signal to people that something is “off”. This isn’t fair or even rational…but people sense differences…and they often reject them.
This isn’t an issue I know an answer for. I know being told to “fix” my posture/gait was disastrous, took a heavy toll on my self-confidence. But I also know that people judge others based on their body language without even being aware of it.
Movement is communication. And differences in gait can make it difficult for kids and teens to find their footing in a social world that judges people entirely based on how they walk, stand, move.
“Acceptance” is often an idea that is applied to labels…words. Accept this condition or that condition and so on. But rejection goes well beyond labels and words. Rejection can happen the instant a person uses an off-key gesture or gait.
Meaning: right now? Rejection covers way more territory than acceptance. We need to fix that. We need a definition of acceptance that meets rejection head on and matches it’s reach and scope.
We need a definition that encompasses movement itself.
That way, those awkward little hearts out there can grow up feeling at peace…moving in their own way, oblivious to the metric of others.