We are in the middle of a party. People are chatting, swimming, eating, laughing.
Brooke is sitting on a step stripping a stick.
This is what she does. She forages for bits and pieces of branches whose bark she can pull clean off, revealing the tender wood below the surface. Her fingernails dig into the soft bark again and again, then pull it back in chunks.
Someone walks over to our step to say hello. She bends at the waist, looming over Brooke.
Brooke doesn’t look up. She doesn’t stop stripping her stick.
Dig. Pull. Dig. Pull.
Our visitor reaches out a hand and cups it below Brooke’s chin.
I freeze. Oh God.
She uses the hand to pull Brooke’s head up by the jaw.
A thin line of panic starts somewhere deep. I know that Brooke is going to scream. 5,4,3,2 …
She does scream, but not in the way that I expect.
“I HATE BEING TOUCHED!!” she shouts.
I am flabbergasted.
Words. Self-awareness. Communication. Self-advocacy.
I know the sentence will need to be reformatted. But I am drenched in pride.
I turn to Brooke. “Great job telling us how you feel, Brooke. Really great job.” I hope that my words send a message to both of them. I stand with my girl.
Our visitor is undaunted.
“I just want to see that beautiful face,” she says. “Lift up for me.”
I am stymied by etiquette. By deference to our host. By generational difference. By convention.
Brooke is not.
She lifts her head as instructed. And growls.
On the way home, Katie points out an important distinction. ‘Brooke, you actually DO like being touched. Just not by people you don’t know. Cause if you didn’t want to be touched at all, then Mama couldn’t hug you. See?’
We spend the ride practicing.’Please don’t touch me. I don’t like when you do that.’
I remember being touched by strangers as a very small child. The pats on the head that brought my shoulders to my ears. It was like nails on a chalkboard. Violating. Patronizing. Wrong.
My daughter is not a very small child. She is nine years old. In two weeks she will be in fourth grade. She doesn’t interact the way one would expect a nine year-old to interact. She babbles. She talks about Blue’s Clues and Elmo. She is petite. She is slight. She peels sticks at parties. She is autistic.
She is nine years old.
She has every right not to be touched by strangers without warning. Or consent.