by Jill Wilbur Smith
My younger daughter, Sarah, loves jellied cranberry sauce. Don’t judge. She developed her taste for it from me. (I don’t know if I’m drawn to it because of the taste, the texture, or the fact that it slurps from the can in a perfect cylinder with hieroglyphic rings etched around its center.)
When Sarah was 9 or 10, she came across jellied cranberry sauce on a salad bar. It was the first item she went for when she brought her plate back to the table. She shoveled a huge piece into her mouth—a bite she immediately spat into her napkin, wiping her tongue of the offending flavor.
She hadn’t discovered jellied cranberry sauce—but pickled beets.
Imagine her surprise and disappointment. A nice label on the salad bar would have been useful.
That’s how I feel about labels. They serve a purpose. They let you know what you’re getting so you can avoid unpleasant surprises. Good for a salad bar, even better for a person with a developmental disability.
The day my daughter Emily was diagnosed with Asperger’s was one of the most liberating of my life. I had a name for her idiosyncratic behavior. The label helped me know what to expect from her so I wouldn’t be surprised by her conduct.
Let me be clear. Emily’s label isn’t an excuse for bad behavior or a free ticket to let others take care of her. It’s just another way of understanding who she is so that we can better help her navigate the world. And so that others know what they’re getting as well.
I often tell people that Emily is on the autism spectrum, that she has Asperger’s. I don’t say it to elicit pity, but as a way to clue them in about what they can expect of her. It helps explain why she might not look them in the eye when they talk to her. It provides context for my elation when she gets her first job at 21. It reminds them not to be surprised if she reacts to a loud noise or a bright light in a more exaggerated way than most do.
Her label helps assimilate her into society in a way that’s appropriate for her.
Lots of people like pickled beets. They’re delicious. They can be used in a variety of recipes—but never as a substitute for jellied cranberry sauce.
Emily is delightfully delicious as well. She’s wicked smart and has a quirky sense of humor. Like pickled beets, she has a little bit of an edge about her that, paired with the right set of expectations, can be phenomenal. Just don’t expect a sugary sweet disposition that melts in your mouth and you won’t be disappointed.