Many of us have memory of watching Mr. Rogers Neighborhood on television as children. The show was on from 1968 to 2001, and was an icon in the world of children’s entertainment. Though Mr. Rodgers was a very intelligent man I am not sure even he knew how many children he reached, especially given the starting era of the show.
I recall watching the program and being totally mesmerized by the warm, gentle stability of his voice. The set was textured but not overwhelming, and reminded me of my grandparent’s home – filled with secret nooks where I could find something fascinating to learn about. The predictable structure of the show was calming to a child like me whose nervous system was overrun by the noise of daily life.
My favourite part of the show was when Mr. Rogers would summon Trolley and send him into the land of make-believe. I was always drawn to non-verbal characters in cartoons and film, as I was a huge fan of Charlie Chaplin. But something was special about Trolley. Even though Trolley didn’t speak, he communicated to everyone using a series of bell sounds while he squiggled back and forth. None of the characters seemed to struggle with understanding Trolley and even accepted his form of speaking as normal.
Mr. Rogers understood Trolley and even trusted Trolley to carry us from his home to the land of make-believe and back again. If there was an urgent message, Trolley told Mr. Rogers without any doubt from Mr. Rogers. Long before the topic of autism was a part of my life, Mr. Rogers was already teaching me about presuming comeptence and helping me to feel accepted for who I was.
On the final episode of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, Mr. Rogers talk about the importance of the arts. The postman, Mr. McFeely, brings Mr. Rogers a film he made about the arts which is shown near the beginning of the episode. (This in itself is an amazing story, but isn’t really the focus of what I want to share with you today.)
After the postman leaves Mr. Rogers says,
“Some people surprise us in this life. I think it is important to look for what people are able to do, and once you find it, appreciate it.”
Then he calls on Trolley to visit the land of Make-Believe and check in on the Arts fair. Mr. Rogers understood we need to presume competence in others, even when it is difficult to see. He encouraged us to look for what people are able to do, understanding that sometimes our abilities are masked or just not noticed until you take the time to look harder and deeper.
Just like with Trolley, it is important for people to realize that people with autism do not always speak the same way as others. But if you take the time to look for what we are able to do, and appreciate it, you will see us flourish.
Thank you, Mr. Rogers, for teaching us how to live together in this big neighbourhood we call earth.