One of the most common questions we are asked about our daughter Danielle, who has autism, is:
“How should I greet her? What should I say to her when we meet?”
Many people also ask, “Does Danielle understand what people say to her?”
People who ask these questions are often aware that those with autism have difficulty with social interactions, making eye contact, meeting new people, and communication. Such questions are genuinely well-thought-out and come from a position of goodwill.
While every person is different, in Danielle’s case her receptive language skills, understanding what you have to say are very high. However, her expressive language skills are very low. Her method of communicating is by using an augmentative speech machine and sign language. For many years Danielle didn’t use her machine all that much. When she did, it typically was a one-word utterance to ask for something that she needed. The fact that Danielle didn’t use much language often kept her out of the conversation altogether. Sometimes it felt to us that she was invisible to others. This made us feel bad, especially when people did not greet her.
Something that we have learned from being parents of a person with autism is that when greeting or meeting someone with very limited expressive language, it is necessary to be the initiator of the conversation. When we encounter one of Danielle’s friends who has autism, we always make it a point to greet him or her by name. Sometimes it is necessary to get the person’s visual attention with a gesture. The conversation need not be long — just a simple hello, speaking clearly and calling him or her by name. This is an intentional recognition of the inherent value and dignity of all persons made in the image and likeness of God. You may not get a verbal response but sometimes you will get a wave or a smile that makes it clear that your greeting was heard and appreciated. Not only will the greeting be appreciated by the individual but by their parents and caretakers as well.
It is not always easy to hold a conversation with a person with autism. Even when he or she is quite verbal there are limitations. The conversation may be repetitive, scripted, limited in content, or one-sided. However, it is important to take the time and try. Christ calls all of us to see Him in others. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines a virtue as “an habitual and firm disposition to do the good.” Greeting a person with autism or other disability is an opportunity to practice many virtues including compassion, love, patience, understanding, and persistence.
So we applaud anyone who asks, “How do I greet her? What do I say? Does she understand?”
This can be the first step in entering into a bona-fide relationship with Danielle, one which allows the love of God to fill all of our lives.
Copyright 2017 Dave and Mercedes Rizzo