Today was my son’s day to be the Special Person in his 4K classroom. This is a very big deal for a 4 year old! The special person gets to bring in toys and books to share with friends. They get to be the line leader. And, they get to invite mom and dad into the room to participate. We watched as our son interacted with his typical peers. We watched as the smile spread across his face. This was a good day. And as good a reason as any to celebrate!
We usually avoid eating in restaurants. There are so many unpredictable variables. So many things that we cannot control. We often feel judged by people around us. And, since we already spend a considerable amount of time judging ourselves, we try to avoid the extra judgment.
Today we put all of that aside and we went to lunch as a family to celebrate our special person. We walked into the restaurant and Grayson told the hostess exactly which table he wanted. We sat down together. Almost immediately Grayson started to make loud noises. He was hungry and excited and adjusting to the new environment.
James and I went into our usual auto-pilot “situation management” mode. We quickly began redirecting Grayson. We tried to tune out all that was happening around us. But some things are hard to tune out.
You were hard to tune out.
Look, I get it. Nobody comes to a restaurant hoping to listen to a child make loud noise. I understand that loud noises are unpleasant. I understand this more than I ever cared to. I lived in my house for a 6 month period surrounded in every direction by shrill screams. The kind of screams that make the hairs on your arms stand. I heard screams so loud that my body actually had a physical reaction. But that is not what was happening today. Today Grayson was settling into a new environment and trying to let us know what he needed.
I know that you were just trying to have a nice lunch. I know that hour of your life was supposed to be quiet and enjoyable and without interruption. And, because of the noise coming from my child that hour of your life took an unpleasant turn. That hour of your life was noisy. That hour of your life was not how you expected. But, that hour of your life was just one hour of your life.
That one hour of your life is every hour of my life.
When my son started to scream I felt bad for you. The way I feel badly for every person we encounter out in the real world when Grayson’s behaviors peak. And then, you did something that made it so difficult for me to feel badly for you anymore. You autism shamed me.
I saw you peering at us every few seconds. I could see your irritation growing. And as your irritation grew, my anxiety grew. I willed Grayson to stop. I became more aware of your irritation than my son and what he needed. Your irritation became the biggest thing in the room. Bigger and louder than my son’s scream. You got in the way of my ability to help calm the situation. I heard you tell your husband that you wanted to move tables. I saw the intention in your face when you locked eyes with me. You may not have used words, but I could see your thoughts written all over your face. My son was naughty. And, I was a bad mom.
When I replied, I used words. I did not return your passive aggressive glare. I looked at you and I said as calmly as I could muster “I am very sorry. My son has autism, my husband just ran to get him a snack and he will be calm in just one moment.” You looked at your husband disapprovingly. As if my “excuse” was not good enough for you. Your husband looked back at you and loudly said “oh, Autism.”
Your looks continued. You were still irritated, but now you were also curious. The weight of your glare became too heavy. We picked up all of our personal belongings. I did not know where I was going, but I could not stay there. I could not stay in that moment with you.
A very kind waitress who witnessed the exchange came over to me and said “we have a really awesome table up front by the window where he can watch cars. Does he like cars?” I wanted to hug the waitress. I wanted to cry and hug her and thank her. We had just been autism shamed and then she saved us.
We moved to a new table and had a wonderful lunch. Grayson sat joyfully and recounted the details from his “Special Person” day. And, although my husband and I tried to be present in the moment with our boys, we were still stuck in our moment with you.
Our lunch intended to celebrate a great day became something different. It became something negative. Something filled with shame. Something sad. You did that. You did that with your looks. You did that with your words. You did that in your unwillingness to soften after we told you about our son’s diagnosis. You did that by making our son’s diagnosis be something that we felt we needed to say. You did that.
You may think you won. After all, we moved and you were able to enjoy a quiet lunch. But, you did not win. In the game of life, you lose. You lose because you were not kind. Because you did not show us tolerance. Because for one hour of your life you could not show compassion to other people. People who were clearly struggling. Because you assumed that my son was typical and that I was a bad mother. Because you assumed anything about someone who you did not know.
No, you do not win. Kindness always wins. Tolerance always wins. Compassion always wins. What you did…that does not get to win.
I hope you enjoyed your lunch. I hope you enjoyed that single hour of your life. Thank you for making that hour of my life just a little bit harder than all of the rest. Thank you for the reminder of the world I need to protect my children from. Thank you for igniting my fight. For fueling my fire.
My son has autism. What is your excuse?