Getting the Finger

Yesterday Sam went to her first job interview. The city has a program for public high school students to gain job experience, and she is participating. Students create a resume, select three jobs, and then interview three to five minutes with each job’s coordinator. Thousands of students, a forty-five minute line just to register, and then students sit in a crowded, chaotic room waiting to hear someone call them for one of their three interviews. “Sensory overload” does not do the scene justice.


The program’s inclusion specialist had assured us that Sam would receive assistance and be shepherded through the process, but that turned out to be a lie. When we finally registered and were told that no one knew anything about helping her (or the other “diverse learners” from her high school, all of whose names the inclusion specialist had requested so she could arrange support), I became quite agitated. Eventually the registrar found a volunteer to help us. Another volunteer asked her what was going on, and that’s when it happened. The finger. The volunteer pointed her index finger at her temple and rotated it. You know this gesture. It means, “I’m dealing with someone who is not right in the head. A crazy.”

Sam was too overwhelmed to notice, but I was indignant. I shot back at the volunteer, “She’s not (I made the gesture). She’s autistic!” I was shaking and suppressing tears of rage. How dare she insinuate . . . whatever she was insinuating.

The volunteer ended up being extremely helpful, and despite a number of other glitches, Sam made it through the interviews. Three and a half hours. She waited until we arrived home to completely fall apart. Later this month she’ll find out if she is being offered a job, and I am crossing my fingers.

But that other finger. What to write? What to think? I am trying to talk myself down, remind myself how solicitous the volunteer was after she understood the situation, how unintentional her offense was. Maybe she learned something. Maybe she thought that uttering the word autistic would have been more offensive than twirling her finger. Maybe I need to chill. Maybe I have no reason to find the gesture offensive. I just don’t know.

Most weeks I write something in this blog about the concept of disability.  There’s no denying that Sam needed extra help. No shame either. Her brain is not wired to negotiate such a chaotic place, at least not on a first run-through. A thousand other kids did negotiate it without help, so Sam’s autism was inarguably a disability. I was not bothered about having people notice her disability; in fact, I wanted them to notice. That volunteer was not ridiculing Sam. So why do I feel like I was assaulted?