Opinion, Editorial and the occasional Freudian slip

Musings on a rainy day…

If there is one thing that gets me worked up it is communication or rather, the lack of it. Given that I work with children with a diagnosis of autism, communication is a topic occupies center-stage in practically every conversation I have with families, in every workshop I lead and every day in my work with the children. All these conversations around defining communication, differentiating it from speech, and explaining the nuances of a skilled communicator, has made me acutely aware of my skills in the area and those of others. 

Ever so often I pause and if we as typical adults are entitled to comment on the communication abilities or limitations of the children we work with. Just the other day, I ran into the person who lives next to my workplace. A young man in his 30s, with two children of his own, we have been aware of each other’s existence for over 10 years now, just by the fact that when I park my car at work, he is often standing outside his house, doing odd jobs, or talking on his phone. Not just him, I often see other members of his family too. When I leave for home in the evening, his mother is often walking back and forth on the lane where the car is parked, which means she passes by within two feet of me. But I could be invisible and believe me I am not. I am not puny, and I do have shocking hair in terms of color and texture, making me perfectly visible. Ask some of the kids I work with, and they will produce drawings of me that always have hair that is around me like the sun! The lady can just glaze over me as can the rest of the family. But if I cooed over the grandkids, then the lady would grudgingly look in my direction and make a remark and advise the young kid that he must answer when anyone asks him a question!!Mind you, the family has displayed great communication skills when they have picked arguments with us on who should keep the lane clean or who should pay for removing the dead tree stump. And then there are the neighbors near my home. They have the amazing ability again to look stonily ahead and ensure that their mouth does not twitch by mistake. 

I always believed that it was an Indian thing, and we are just singularly unfriendly people. It’s the uncomfortable silence in an elevator full of strangers when we do not look up, make eye contact or smile. Everyone looks like a shy bride with averted eyes and bowed heads! But then they are strangers and that’s reason enough to look away. And then I had the opportunity to travel abroad for some professional conferences. And that added to my understanding of communication. I remember interacting with these much in demand, magnetic academics who are a part of many committees and seemingly handle so many different roles seamlessly. For me it was a wonderful moment, and I was so thrilled that I got to express my two cents about India and how we do what they do, in India to folks of that stature. 

Six months later, I bumped into the same folks in a different country, a different setting and surprise- I was met with the same glazed look. This time I did not rely on my hair, but the color of my skin. My colleague and I were among roughly five others from this part of the world and therefore we were rather conspicuous, or so I thought. I had to introduce myself all over again and jog their memories over the wonderful occasion when we had met earlier, and I was rewarded with polite and puzzled smiles. I must admit that strangers in the elevator are more forthcoming and make appropriate small talk for the few minutes in those countries.

It takes me back to every conversation I have had in the last 15 and more years with parents of children with autism, conversations around their objectives for the child and their areas of concern. And it has almost always veered to communication and understandably so given that many of them have challenges in that domain. The concerns would begin with the child needing to express his needs, maybe answering people when they ask him his name or where he studies maybe, to expressing concern for others and being that perfect kid that everyone would vie to call their own. 

And it continues to fascinate me that many of the parents do not display the same amount of communication skills and barely acknowledge the presence of anyone else. It still surprises me to see a group of parents waiting to pick up their kids, but no one ventures to smile at someone or even attempt to strike up a conversation, though the little ones actually wave bye to each other when they leave for home, and they are the ones with a communication challenge. Responses to emails call for reminders via text messages, more emails and occasionally a wave from me while they are at the gate, to hasten the process. 

What then are the rules of communication then, especially in a social context? Acknowledging a neighbor maybe? Wishing someone on a festival? Acknowledging an email- in this era communication moves beyond one that is face to face. Digital behavior represents who you are too. Thanking someone for time spent sorting your thoughts. The list is endless, but I feel like I am the only one doing it all the time. Or am I just expecting the people that I encounter to be perfect? Then is it me or is it them?