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Strange behavior

Raising my autistic daughter has taught me not to judge others’ so-called odd responses.

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gracia lam for the bosotn globe

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Having a child with special needs has changed my perspective on life. I’ve become more understanding and slower to judge other people. I didn’t realize how far this had gone until a few months ago.

As I was driving with the radio tuned to WBZ, I heard a commentary about how disgraceful it was that a customer punched a server for putting too many pickles on her hot dog. “What kind of society did we live in, anyway?”

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The story made me feel a tiny bit uncomfortable. It was terrible behavior, but I could almost see my daughter doing it if pickles were an issue for her. Thankfully, they are not. Her issues are plastic bags, suitcases, and open overhead compartments on airplanes, which is why we don’t fly with her. The last time we did, I didn’t take my eyes off her face until the bins were closed. I was tensed, ready to spring if she was overcome with anxiety and started to lash out.

Later, I heard another story about a plane taking off from Los Angeles, bound for New York, when a passenger started loudly singing Whitney Houston hits. When asked to stop, the woman refused, so the pilot landed the plane in Kansas City and she was escorted off. The woman said she had a medical condition.

Now that is something Alexa would definitely do, I thought. Especially if we were late on her meds and she was becoming manic. The songs would more likely come from Raffi or The Wiggles, even though she’s 21. I could just picture it: The more we’d try to quiet her, the louder she’d become.

I want to give the people in these stories the benefit of the doubt, no matter how extreme their behavior is, because my daughter, Alexa, has extreme behavior sometimes. She is severely affected by autism. Strange things bother her, and she does strange things. I don’t know what to think anymore, she’s changed my perspective so much.

It’s not just me that Alexa has influenced. One of her caregivers, Sarah, told me a story recently. She went with some friends to the Taj for afternoon tea, and the first thing she saw there was a group of grown women sitting at a table dressed in Disney princess costumes.

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“What in the world?” I asked, and Sarah nodded. “That’s what I thought, but then I remembered Alexa’s birthday and how we all dressed in costumes from The Lawrence Welk Show,” Sarah said. “I realized I didn’t know what this was about. Maybe these women were making someone’s whole life by dressing up that way. No more judgment from me.”

Sarah is right. There’s so much we don’t know. Now when I hear about something strange happening, I wonder if a person with disabilities or different abilities is involved, a person who has his or her own unique way of looking at the world, who could teach us all about tolerance and respect.

When I got home one recent night, Alexa’s signature was everywhere. She had written her name multiple times on open notebooks, filling every page. She had covered a dry erase board using brightly colored markers. Her signature is a strange and beautiful image of swirling A’s and crossing T’s. It’s what she wants to say to the world: “Alexa Watt!”

Looking around, I realized for the first time that my daughter is a writer, even though her name is all she can write. She changes my perspective. She shows me there is beauty in strange things.

D. Alison Watt is a poet, writer, and author of Hurricane Dancing. Send comments to connections@globe.com.

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