Most of us parents know that our kids bring up important issues seemingly out of the blue. Bedtime and car rides are peak hours in my house. Maybe it’s the lack of distractions; maybe it’s the lack of eye contact that frees them to ask about difficult, scary, or slightly taboo subjects. How was Sophia born if she has two mothers? I know the H-word and the D-word, but what is the S-word? And what about the F-word? What do you think I should major in when I go to college? What would I be really good at? I’m always thankful for these windows into my girls’ lives but never prepared for them.
The latest, from Sam, was, “Mom, what are you supposed to do when someone follows you down the street and keeps asking you for money?” Stop. This is not like spelling out four letter words. This is a full-focus question. “Did that happen to you?” I gulp. “Yes, last Friday when I was done with work.” Deep breath. Visions of my very vulnerable child being harassed in a compromised place. “Can you tell me what happened?”
This particular episode turned out to be relatively benign. An elderly woman collecting money to protect Buddhist temples in China (Tibet? Who knows?) approached her outside a coffee shop. It was lunch hour and downtown swarmed with pedestrians. The movie of a narrowly-escaped physical assault that was running through my head quickly morphed into a more comical scene. Sam politely listened to the woman’s plea but told her she had no money. The woman asked if she would have money on Monday, and Sam nodded her assent. Sam walked on, but the woman followed her down the street to point out the intersection where she would be stationed on Monday. When I told Sam that the proper response to being followed and harassed is to turn directly to the person and say, “Leave me alone or I will call the police,” Sam’s follow-up was, “What if the person doesn’t speak enough English to understand?” Clearly we were not dealing with a serious threat here.
The problem is that my worst-case movie could have played out. Sam knows she is supposed to walk past any stranger who attempts to strike up a conversation, but she says she does not want to be rude. The day before she met the Buddhist she gave her money to a man collecting funds for the YMCA. How does she know he was being truthful? His shirt bore those four letters: Y-M-C-A. And the word gullible is not in the dictionary.
Sam’s dad and I have coached her about strangers, about the possibility that people are dishonest, about being alert to dangers. She seems to absorb the lessons until something like this happens and we realize that her generosity and naïveté have once again trumped our admonitions. She does not want to be rude. I also do not want her to be rude, but better rude than victimized. She is a target. She is both autistic and a teenager. I remind her that she has difficulty reading people’s faces. I explain to her that teenagers have not yet learned to steel themselves against the pleas of those in need. Walk on and donate to a trustworthy organization. You’ll feel diminished yourself for treating the panhandlers as if you do not even acknowledge their humanity, but you will be safe.
When Sam shares anecdotes such as these two about the Buddhist and the YMCA guy, I wonder if I am a fool for letting her navigate the city on her own. She cannot read signs of danger to save her life. Literally, I fear. And yet I know no other way for her to learn than to be out in the world, confronting the world. So she endures another safety lecture, I track her whereabouts on my phone, and she grows up. Her autism makes her more vulnerable than other teens (whose judgment is already highly questionable), but she wants to grow up. I’ll worry about her every day, but I will not stand in her way.