One reason I loved the idea of cohousing was the fact that they would get to know my son. He is on the autism spectrum. I’ve heard the horror stories of young people (usually men) being arrested or killed because police didn’t realize they were autistic and felt threatened by their “strange” behavior. I didn’t want neighbors to think he is acting strange and call the police. At my old neighborhood, I told some neighbors but didn’t know most of my neighbors.
Once we moved in, one neighbor noticed he wears a bracelet that says “I have autism”. I like for him to wear that when we travel. This neighbor suggested I talk at the next plenary meeting and tell everyone about him – what is autism, what his strengths and weaknesses are. I loved that suggestion. I appreciated that the neighbors wanted to know about my son.
So I gave a presentation and we had already lived there over a month so there were some good questions. One person noticed he lacks affect when he talks and I confirmed that can be part of autism.
I felt welcomed. And the neighbors checked in on him when I had to leave town. Everyone would say hi to him when he walked the dog and knew that sometimes he may not say it back.
But I did wonder if everyone really wants or accepts all abilities at cohousing. We had an open house and a lot of people came through and were curious about cohousing (and especially our solar panels). One man came with his adult son who was non-verbal. When I told him one reason I moved in was for my son I noticed that everyone else was quiet. I wondered if they were okay with this family moving in. Maybe they didn’t want a lot of people with other abilities in the neighborhood.
There are communities based on various abilities but most cohousing is whoever wants to can move in – not based on any one idea. All the neighbors are real people with real concerns and biases.
The cracks showed later. A family moved in – renting with the intention to own. They told some people that their daughter, age 7, was developmentally delayed. Once they moved in, they saw first hand how farther behind she was from other kids. One neighbor complained about how the child yelled and screamed like a toddler one time. I thought that was strange. Who cares what age a child is – we have toddlers too so hearing yelling and screaming is part of life. Why would it bother you? If it’s hard for her to communicate, toddler like behavior will happen.
Then my nightmare happened. One neighbor suggested to this family that they move away, that we weren’t a good place for their daughter. They deny saying that but either way, that’s the message the family heard. They already were feeling like their daughter was having a hard time in this environment interacting with so many children and adults and now this talk from this one neighbor confirmed their feeling – they weren’t being accepted here.
It showed an ugly underbelly. I already saw some bias and not listening when someone says – please don’t say that (see Fat Shame). Of course, most of the neighbors were great with my son and tried. But, bias will show up. I felt horrible when this family packed up and left. They were great and I loved their caring vision for our community. And I got to know their daughter and I enjoyed her company and input when all the kids were together working on projects. She even helped me make a poster one time.
Every community is different. This is another thing to watch – how do they treat each other. How do they treat the most vulnerable? I know of another community who has a weekly common meal and one neighbor’s son brings rotisserie chicken each time. He is on the autism spectrum and they enjoy his company so much that they made up a song about loving the chicken he brings.
For us, we moved out when things did start to crack and the ugly underbelly grew into a mountain of disgust. Now we live in a condo with very friendly neighbors. I don’t know everything about them and vice versa and I appreciate the clear boundaries. I tell everyone about my son so I can prevent the same thing I always feared – neighbors scared by him if he does something “strange”. But even in my neighborhood before cohousing, everyone gets used to seeing him walk the dog. And once, a neighbor didn’t have her glasses on and saw him walking towards her in the field and he was wearing all black. She thought it was the grim reaper. That made us all laugh!