by Cay Burton
To the Canada Line attendants who helped me locate my lost child last week: thank you.
To the police officer who kept this youth company until I arrived at Bridgeport Station to collect them: my sincere (with less tears this time) gratitude.
To the people on the train with me during my moment of palpable panic yet did nothing: allow me to brief you about what it feels like to lose track of a highly dependent young person diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in this apathetic city.
The smooth running of various systems in Metro Vancouver relies on citizens’ compliance with social norms. These norms take more time and more practice for youth with certain ASDs to get used to following.
I care for a child with an ASD that often distracts them from performing expected social behaviour, especially in public spaces. Some of these challenges include mundane, procedural codes of conduct that neurotypical residents of the Lower Mainland seem to collectively abide, including waiting in lines, navigating politely through crowds, and turn-taking when tapping in and out with Compass cards at TransLink gateways.
Youth with ASDs sometimes find it confusing and unnatural to conform to these kinds of social expectations, because these types of operational norms privilege a certain type of cognition, mobility and able-bodiness.
Much of Vancouver is designed around the ableistic assumption that organizing ourselves into single-file, unidirectional lines in public spaces is what works best for everyone. The reality is that our city’s structures are built to work best for only some of us.
The youth in this story—like youth of all physical and mental abilities—has the right to participate in this city’s social life by accessing and using public transportation. Yet this participation is made all the more difficult by the lack of awareness and understanding that Canadian society has about ASDs in general.
This limited “understanding” is too frequently reduced to unfounded moral panic associated with vaccinations rather than appropriate implementation of structural support for youth on the spectrum. The child I care for needs constant adult attentiveness in order to function optimally, except that, having recently reached puberty, they are tall and gangly, looking every bit the part of a teenager who would otherwise be completely capable of taking the train unchaperoned.
This child’s ASD makes it so that, when they push past or step in front of others who may be patiently waiting in line as per societal norms, they receive gawking stares, dirty looks, and even have vocal displays of indignation directed at them. This ebullient youth does not carry the intention of inconveniencing, disturbing, or insulting those around them. This is what navigating the city life looks like for them, and me being immediately nearby is necessary to keep them safe.
Which is why we need other passengers to make space for us, and other people with ASDs, on the platforms, trains, and turnstiles of TransLink’s services.
This youth and I were separated when they entered the exit gates too quickly for me to remain beside them, because I was held up by a steady stream of people. Physical as well as social barriers made it impossible for me to reach the youth before they boarded the train and the doors closed.
In this moment, structural ableism harpooned me in the chest: the systemic problem limiting the movement of folks with disabilities (and their support workers) had separated me from my child, putting them in danger.
The attendants orchestrating TransLink are invisible, omnipotent heroes, present in ways that a single caregiver cannot be when working with a youth whose ASD makes them a flight risk. Shifting into problem-solving mode, but unable to locate a Canada Line attendant on the platform, I picked up the emergency phone located beside the map of the transit system.
Fully expecting to meet more resistance, I was instead treated with gracious non-judgement from the attendant on the other end, a person who did not waste time reprimanding my caregiving but jumped into action. Between the attendant, myself and the on-call police officer, we were able to locate the child in mere minutes.
Youth with ASDs can teach us a lot about the value of socially normative behaviours in public places.
What does it mean to make accommodations for those who might not be operating according to the same social clock as you? What does it mean for young people with ASDs to fully participate in society?
Greater awareness of autism as a developmentally and experientially different way of learning and moving about the world—and not something caused by vaccinations—would have made this crisis moment much safer for this youth and myself.
The panic I felt was exacerbated by the fact that I have repeatedly witnessed society’s inability to respond with respect or helpfulness in encounters with this enigmatic child. I would much rather live in a world where offering help to a distressed or lost stranger is the norm, even if it means being late to an errand, appointment, or meeting.
I would much rather live in a city where the empathy demonstrated by the Canada Line attendants during this episode was a shared quality of all TransLink passengers.