A strange encounter with a strange young man

I often like to take a walk and also sit and read something interesting at nice parks or walking paths when the kids are at school. One should make time in one’s day to excercise the body and mind, and soak up some sunshine and nice scenery. Anyone who spends much time in public outdoor recreational areas during school hours will be familiar with the phenomenon of the group of institutionalized disabled people with carers on an outing. Very often the disabled people are distinguishable by being physically strange-looking, or strange-sounding, while there is usually someone who speaks and looks normal enough but behaves strangely. Most groups are a mixture of different types of disabled people, and often the most ordinary-looking person in the group is the one that behaves in a way that suggests autism.

A while ago our kids and I were sitting at a local McDonalds restaurant after school. It was quite early in the day – I think it had been a short school day for some reason or other. We had just sat down and got settled into eating our junk, when the sound of loud and discordant voices caught our attention, and a group of mostly teenagers clustered around the tables across the way. It was clearly a disabled teens’ outing. I couldn’t be bothered shifting and decided to put up with the noise and try to look not-annoyed. I was ripping into a burger or something when at the top of my field of vision I saw an adult-sized stranger approaching our table quickly from behind a partition. It was a teenage boy, and before I had a chance to become alarmed at his close proximity he had told me that “He’s your son” and then, before I even had a chance to meet his eyes or say a word, the normal-sounding and normal-looking young man had rapidly retreated back to his group, using the cover of the partition to protect himself from any retalliatory exchange of social niceties. I figured this lad was probably a member of this group because of autism, but I thought his message, while socially very odd behaviour, was not the type of thing that an autistic person is supposed to be interested in. Why was he interested in some stranger’s family relationship? Was he showing off some new insight into social relationships? He wasn’t there with his mother. I could never know his motivation, but I thought it interesting that he identified my son as my offspring rather than my daughter who was also there. People often tell me that my daughter looks a lot like me, presumably based general and superficial characteristics such as our hair and build and gender. Our faces are really quite different, but people seem to be too distracted by other things to see this. People also sometimes say that my son looks like his Dad, probably because they share some masculine facial features. But no one ever says that my son looks like me, even though I believe we have quite similar faces and personalities, once you subtract the effects of gender. Was that probably-autistic boy able to mentally separate the superimposed patterns of sex and genetics in face recognition? He didn’t hang about to explain.

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