We took my niece to the park this week. Like most 6-year-olds, she’s fearless and fast. We practiced stopping at crosswalks and looking both ways. The afternoon sun was right in her eyes. I gave her my sunglasses. They were so big on her, she had to hold them so they wouldn’t fall off her face. At the park, she went right for the playground. Up the rock wall, down the slides, climbing and laughing, eventually making her way over to the tire swing. While she was swinging, another little girl approached.
“Do you want me to push you?” the little girl asked.
This is where, despite how prepared I am for this moment, I can feel myself begin to tense up. My niece is non-verbal. She was diagnosed with autism and will speak very occasionally, but it’s by far not her preferred method of communication. Sign language and gestures come easier. So, when a stranger asks her a question, there is a drop-off. White space. A little free fall into a place where words are expected but do not arrive. We quickly step in with introductions and explain, “She doesn’t talk.”
“She can’t talk?” The little girl was puzzled.
“That’s right; she doesn’t talk very much. But I’m sure she’d like to play.”
I can feel my shoulders knotting up, bracing for whatever misunderstanding could unfold next. When you love a child, especially a neurodivergent child, you want to become a shield. To break every fall. To catch every dark word before it can reach their ears. But my niece can’t live like a bird in a cage, so we go out and hope the world is kind.
We share this world with a vast spectrum of divergencies, abilities, and people who come from so many complex situations. Despite all our vast differences, every human is the same.
The girl gave my niece a little push on the swing, still absorbing this information. She watched my niece for a while, then looked back to us, clearly concerned.
“Did you take her to a doctor?”
“We did,” we explained. “And we found out she’s not sick at all! She just doesn’t really like to talk.”
The little girl thought hard about this. Finally, she turned back to us. With the patient, assertive tone she must have learned from a teacher, she said, “You know what might be a good idea? Maybe read her a book for once.” We laughed and agreed. Reading a book is always a good idea.
I’ve always been more of a writer than a talker. The silences don’t bother me. But what does worry me is the space she creates; the room for interpretation. My niece exists like a poem– full of line breaks, commas, white space. I’ve seen how poorly a poem can be read. I’m afraid of all the ways she can be misunderstood. How someone could take her silence and see her motion and twist it into rudeness. Disobedience. Difference. How people can miss the joyful child entirely.
“She doesn’t talk,” the little girl repeated, now stating it as a fact. She took the tire swing in both hands and push, push, pushed with all her tiny might. She lifted my niece all the way up over her head and let her go. My niece whooshed through the air, laughing hard, the swing whirling in a wide new orbit.
“But she does laugh!” the little girl announced, triumphant.
That’s right. She does laugh.
It’s going to be another beautiful weekend. Have fun and be kind.
Bookworms, head to New Ulm for the Public Library’s Sidewalk Book Sale all month long! Weather permitting, they’ll be out on the west side of the library near the book drop, with books for sale Monday-Thursday, 9:30 a.m to 8 p.m, and Friday-Saturday, 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Follow their Facebook page for details and updates. It’s your last chance to complete the scavenger hunt for North Mankato Taylor Library in honor of Scavenger Hunt Day! Find the 12 words hidden in North Mankato business windows, unscramble them and bring your correct answer to the library for a prize! Answers must be turned in by June 4th to win!
Soothe joint pain, relieve stiff backs and accumulate improved balance. VINE is hosting a Tai Chi for Health. This class is perfect for all abilities, with modifications for all levels. Register here for tickets. Classes will every Tuesday and Friday from 9:30 a.m. to 10:15 p.m. at Shelter #2 at Spring Lake Park. I once attended a Tai Chi class, and I still get relaxed just thinking about it!
Yum! It’s the Grand Opening Weekend at Sailor’s Sweetshop in Waseca! Stop by Friday and Saturday for the chance to score coupons for FREE cookie dough, available to the first 10 people to make a purchase Friday and Saturday. Follow their event page for updates!
The 410 Project is hosting Faster Than Speed, a charity silent auction to benefit the ECHO Food Shelf in Mankato, June 4th-20th. The opening reception will take place this Friday, from 7-9 p.m. Follow their event page for updates and details, and head to Faster Than Speed to check out paintings and get bidding!
Wrap up the week with some live music. Miller Denn will play live at the Javens Family Vineyard and Winery in Mankato from 5-8 p.m. From 6-9 p.m., you can catch Nate Boots & the High Horses performing acoustic-electric alt-folk at the Grand Kabaret in New Ulm. Steel drummer TriniChad will be at Indian Island Winery from 6-8:30 p.m. Chankaska Creek Ranch and Winery continues their un-WINE-d series with twin cities artist, Doug Collins, who’ll be performing Beatle-esque pop and classic country in an energetic show starting at 6:30 p.m.
Shop ‘til you drop! The Mankato Farmers’ Market is back at Best Buy in Mankato. Check out local vendors and stock up on fresh produce. I’m hoping to get my hands on some rhubarb. Lake Crystal will also host a Craft Market & Vendor Show from noon to 5 p.m., with live music, food, shopping and crafts. It’s Princefest 2021 at the Henderson Event Center! Come Saturday and Sunday for music, food, a Prince-themed art show and more. They’ll kick things off Saturday morning with pancakes and coffee from 8-10:30 a.m., then the music begins! Join the event page for details.
Nicollet Bike and River Valley Running are hosting another Bike, Run, Walk, Shop & Eat Event! Bikers can meet at the bike shop parking lot at 8 a.m. and choose between paved or gravel routes ranging from 25-45 miles. Runners and walkers meet at River Valley Running at 9:15 a.m. for a Fun Run 5k. The runs and rides will end at the HUB, where the River Valley Makers Market will be waiting with local vendors, live music and food trucks!
Need more plants in your life? The Twilight Garden Club will host its annual plant sale at the Hubbard House. Stop to smell the flowers and enjoy the beautiful gardens while you shop. Already overwhelmed with your plant population? Donate them to a good cause! BENCHS is having a Plant and Pet Supply Sale. Simply bring your plants, marked with their variety, and BENCHS will get them ready to sell. There will be discounted pet supplies available for purchase. All proceeds go to the daily care of homeless animals at BENCHS.
Speaking of animals, the North Mankato Taylor Library will have their Summer Reading Kick-Off this Saturday, with a Wild Things Mini Petting Zoo! There will be animals on site, a photo booth, cotton candy, mini donuts and more! Sign up for their Summer Reading Program, “Tails and Tales.” Nature lovers can also attend the Minneopa Nature Hike with the naturalist, Scott Kudelka, who will be teaching attendees about the ecosystem as well as the natural and historical significance of this park. The hike will take place from 4-5 p.m., and attendees must pre-register by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org by 5 p.m. on June 4th. If you can’t make it, sign up instead for Wild About Wildlife. From 7-8 p.m., Kudelka will be sharing information about 15 different local mammals at the Minneopa State Park.
Writers, register here for Saturday Writing in the Park with the Arts Center of St. Peter. Poet Ronda Redmond will provide writing prompts from 10 a.m. to noon at the Minnesota Square Park Pavilion; just bring a notebook, pen, perhaps a lawn chair and all your creativity.
Calling all thespians, voice actors, artists and storytellers! It’s time for KMSU Radio Drama Troupe Casting! Host Shelley Pierce is looking for folks to help perform the Halloween-themed radio drama to be aired on KMSU Radio 89.7FM this October. Casting is open to all experience levels, and you must be 16 years or older. Register here; casting will be held at the Arts Center of St. Peter.
Top the weekend off with some tunes. Indian Island Winery will host Duke Zecco performing ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s hits from 1-3:30 p.m. Crista Bohlmann will be at the August Schell Brewing Co. in New Ulm from 1-4:30 p.m. Tyler Herwig will be playing at the Javens Family Vineyard and Winery in Mankato from 2-5 p.m., and The Landing on Madison will host the Steeltoe Band from 3-6 p.m.
Bonus: Exploring the Spectrum
When we received my niece’s diagnosis, my only understanding of autism came from Temple Grandin. I’d read several of Grandin’s books on animal behavior, and I appreciated how her mind was able to enter spaces mine could not and solve problems I would not have even been able to identify. I ordered more of her work, books focused more on her experiences with autism, like Thinking in Pictures and The Autistic Brain, curious to understand what the world might look like from my niece’s eyes.
I was also deeply moved by The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida, a 13-year-old who prefaces with, “When I was small, I didn’t even know that I was a kid with special needs. How did I find out? By other people telling me that I was different from everyone else and that this was a problem.” After so many years of seeming helpless and vacant, Naoki found a way to unlock the doors and reveal a mind just as curious, subtle and complex as yours or mine. I recommend this hopeful read.
But my niece can’t live like a bird in a cage, so we go out and hope the world is kind.
I plan to continue expanding my reading (always happy to hear your book recommendations), and I hope that, even if you don’t feel like cracking open a whole book on the subject, you at least keep your mind open and kind. We share this world with a vast spectrum of divergencies, abilities, and people who come from so many complex situations. Despite all our vast differences, every human is the same. We each deserve dignity and a shot at happiness.
If we approach the limits of our understanding with curiosity and kindness, we create a safer, better world for everyone. When we share stories, we build connections. Understanding tears down the walls that ignorance can create. There was a time when I understood so little about autism, and while there is still so much to learn and a lot we don’t know, I do know this: my niece is one of the happiest, most loving people I know. My world is better because I get to share it with her.
Weekend High Notes is a regular feature by Molly Butler. Molly covers weekend events, live music, and culture in the Greater Mankato Area. Suggestions are welcome using the MankatoLIFE contact form.