Things I know: There are other people like Wendy.
We found out one day, after she’d failed a math test back in the fifth grade. Wendy is normally brilliant at math, but for some reason, she’d failed the test. Maybe she didn’t understand the particular concept, maybe there was something wrong with the way she’d written her answers down. But no matter what had happened, when she’d gotten the test back, she must have said something horrible to the teacher, because then her teacher called our parents, and our parents yelled at her about it. Wendy yelled back.
She saw a guidance counselor, and the guidance counselor called our parents, but this time, our parents did not yell at Wendy. Rather, they drove her to see a therapist. I did not know this at the time; I was at my grandparents’ house. But when they got back, there was a lot of sighing and crying, and I was quite confused.
That night, my mom sat down on my bed to talk to me.
“There’s something I need to tell you about Wendy,” she said. I listened.
“You’re going to have to be a lot more patient with her, even when you’re mad. We all are. We’re not always going to get everything she does, but that’s because she won’t get everything we does, either, and it’s not her fault.”
I heard the dinosaur names coming from the other room.
“Wendy has autism.”
“Oh,” I answered, not quite knowing what this meant. “Like cousin George?” Cousin George had autism, I’d heard. He was thirty, and could barely talk. He needed help eating. Wendy wasn’t like that at all.
“No,” Mom said. “Not like cousin George. Wendy can do things more easily than cousin George can. She doesn’t need help with the kinds of things he does. But there are still a lot of things she can’t do.”
“Like what?” I asked. Wendy seemed like the kind of kid who could do anything- perfect math tests, save for the one time, people were impressed by her vocabulary, which was advanced for her age, and of course, she was smart, especially when it came to dinosaur facts.
“She can’t talk to other people in the way you or I can,” Mom says, “and she doesn’t always know how to think about their feelings, either. But she’s still your sister, and she’s still our family. This doesn’t mean we should treat her any different.”
Ever since that day, I now knew that there was a word for the kind of person Wendy was, but it was a slippery word, a broad word that could not be easily applied. It was a large category of people, and Wendy was in that category. Not everyone with autism was like Wendy, but lots of them were. Some didn’t like physical contact, while others, like her, did. Some were loud; others were very quiet. As I learned more and more about autism, I felt like I could understand Wendy better.
Years later, and I’m still no closer to understanding her than I was then. I can’t tell if she’s joking or serious. I can’t tell if she’s genuinely happy or just attempting to follow the rules she’s been told to follow. I can’t tell if she chooses to be ignorant about fashion trends or not.
In a way, I suppose I understand Wendy just as much as she understands me.
I’d met other people with autism before, and I’m patient with them. I get that they don’t comprehend social situations the way I do, and I try my best to communicate with them. I had a friend last year, Sarah, who was on the spectrum and had just broken up with her boyfriend.
From what I’d heard, Sarah had hated her boyfriend’s sister, who had always come along on their dates, possibly because she didn’t trust Sarah. But when Sarah began spreading rumors about her, her boyfriend had began ignoring her texts, until they’d finally split.
“He wouldn’t stop ignoring me,” Sarah once sobbed to me. “That selfish, lying, useless...” Her story had evolved into a sharp rain of insults directed towards her ex. I didn’t bother to mention that she had also contributed to the split in their relationship and that it wasn’t entirely his fault, but I sat there listening to her the entire time anyway. If Wendy was angry, it would evolve into an argument. But I never argued with Sarah.
I guess it’s because I wasn’t around Sarah all the time.
People say things about Wendy behind her back- about her outfits, about the times she loses her temper in class, about her makeup. My blood boils and I want more than anything for them to stop, but nonetheless, I can’t stop hating the exact same things about her.
I do not hate Wendy, of course. But there are aspects of her I could do without, like, of course, the dinosaurs.
Whenever we go to a relative’s house, the dinosaurs go, too. Or any other sort of outing. Wendy will ask the same question to anyone who will listen: Hey, want to hear a cool fact about dinosaurs?
And before they know it, the fact evolves into a full-on lecture. Many of them dread the dinosaur speeches, I know they do, but they’re only trying to be polite, so they listen for a while about the incisors of an Allosaurus, or the T-rex skeleton they found a few years back in the Midwest.
But, of course, Wendy doesn’t know that they don’t want to listen. And she keeps on going.
“Wendy, please,” I’ll say. “One day without hearing about dinosaurs.”
“Sorry,” she says, and keeps going anyway, not caring at all about what I just said.
Even worse than the dinosaurs, there’s a trait about Wendy that I hate even more.
It’s the fact that I can’t be heard.
But, of course, there are good things about Wendy, too. Like the time we were all sitting on the couch watching Cinderella back when I was in preschool, and she’d given me one of her princess costumes, just because I liked it. Or, more recently, the time where she’d told me about Michael Preston, the boy who sits next to her in science, and she told me all the things she liked about him as we sat on the back porch together, leaving the dinosaurs forgotten. Or the time she found a baby bird on the sidewalk with a broken wing. She was able to tell where the bone was broken, because birds’ bones were so similar to dinosaurs’. She was able to fix its wing, and set the bird back in the nest, and we’d watched it grow up and fly away.
Sarah is like Wendy, in some ways. The way she speaks while looking at the ground, and how she seems to think so often about herself and not always about others. Cousin George is like Wendy, in the way he laughs when he hears a joke he finds funny. Even people without autism are like Wendy, in both good ways and bad.
Am I like Wendy? I don’t know.