Trust me when I tell you that what came out of my mouth wasn’t at all what I truly wanted to say to her. But I was suspended in that fragile moment between trying to hold it together for the sake of my children and succumbing to the need to come apart at the seams, and it was all my lips could muster as I wavered on the tightrope dividing the two.
“Um, excuse me, can I help you with something?”
She looked up at me startled.
I had to grip the shopping cart so I wouldn’t collapse from emotion.
“This is autism, I told her, as I pointed to Andrew, splayed out on the floor of the plastic bin aisle, engaging in an unraveling I had never witnessed in public before. “It can really be hard on my son sometimes, so please keep your staring and eye rolling to yourself.”
My voice was shaky but firm.
Obviously surprised at being caught and subsequently called out on her judgmental reaction to my son’s sudden and all-consuming meltdown, she croaked out a lame “sorry,” and scurried away.
It wasn’t until she was completely out of sight that I allowed my legs to turn to Jello and buckle underneath me as I sat next to Andrew on the cold floor.
Target had never felt so bleak and unwelcoming.
It took a good solid ten minutes to calm Andrew down. I used every trick in the book, attempted every protocol I had memorized in the last 8 years of behavioral intervention and still I could not get through to my baby boy.
Even his iPad was rendered useless as he chucked it across the aisle; I was again reminded that his Big Grips case was the best choice we could have made for a protective case for his device and I watched as the iPad bounced several times before coming to a stop on the ground, almost defiantly, as if in solidarity with its master.
In the end it was Andrew’s younger brother Ian who finally got through to him, breaking the spell by making a simple suggestion that pierced through the haze surrounding his overwhelmed brother.
I told him he was my hero.
With my attention no longer on comforting and subduing my son, I allowed myself to feel the mixture of sadness and anger welling inside of me.
In the midst of what was undoubtedly the worst undoing of Andrew outside of our home, a stranger had paused long enough to stare at him with disgust and roll her eyes at him, this ungodly little boy infiltrating her space, her day, her life with his shrill shrieks.
It was her eye rolling that did me in.
It said, “Your son is a menace.”
“I can’t believe you can’t control your kid, you loser.”
“You don’t belong here.”
I would have preferred a simple obscene gesture; it would have stung less.
Once Andrew was calm enough to continue, we gathered ourselves and our things and made our way towards the checkout.
That’s when I saw her.
I thought of all the things I had wanted to say but didn’t, all the names I wanted to call her, but couldn’t. I thought how easy it was to hate a perfect stranger.
I was tending to my wounds when I realized her being there wasn’t a coincidence.
She was headed straight for me; she had purposely sought me out.
I braced myself for what I was sure was going to be an epic verbal battle right there, next to the fluffy bath towels and plastic marmalade bowls.
And then she said it.
“I’m so sorry.”
I must have given her a look that suggested she was speaking in a foreign language because she said it again; “I’m so sorry.”
She was crying now. Her hands had made their way to mine and were clasping them in desperation.
“I should have never treated you or your son that way. I was having a bad day but obviously yours is much worse and I’m so sorry. I’m so deeply ashamed for the way I reacted. I hope you can find a way to forgive me.”
It took approximately two seconds for what she had just done to sink in and my arms were suddenly around her and we were hugging and apologizing and forgiving and crying and I told her it took guts to come find me and tell me these things and that she’ll never know just how much that meant to me and we were two imperfect humans hugging it out and Target didn’t feel quite so bleak and unwelcoming anymore and neither did the world.
I gave her one last squeeze and looked in her eyes and I could tell something had transpired there that would leave her changed forever. You just know these things.
I thought about my initial exchange with her – when I had calmly informed her that Andrew had autism, that things were rough, and to please mind her own business – instead of saying what I really wanted to say which was something along the lines of “$%#&!@*^*&^@#*&!!%!%&*&!!!,” and I knew that had I lashed out, lost my temper, and called her names, things would have ended much differently for the both of us.
Which brings me to my message for you all this week:
The looks, the stares, the eye rolls, the judgments; they will continue for my family and your families for many years to come. Some you won’t notice, some will be but a passing flicker, and some will leave deep, lasting scars.
Our instincts tell us to protect our loved ones and we exclaim to all who will listen that we will do so at any cost but I’m here to tell you that we need to look at the bigger picture and make a commitment to be part of the solution and not the problem.
Every time you’re out with your child on the spectrum, you’re an ambassador for autism. Every time you choose the high road and lead by example, you’re changing the world and making it a kinder, gentler place for our kids and adult children.
Every time you refrain from lashing out when someone stares too long, says something ignorant, or perceives your child to be something he or she isn’t, you create an opportunity to right the wrong, to teach those who don’t know, to heal the scars that were left behind from the last time someone mistook your amazing son or daughter for an unruly, spoiled brat.
Every time you make the conscious decision to speak slowly, clearly, effectively, informatively, and honestly rather than becoming belligerent, defensive, and vulgar, you are providing someone with the opportunity to seek you out and apologize.
You are saying to the universe “My child is worth the millions of conversations I may have to have in order to set others straight about what it means to have autism.”
And the universe is ready and poised to listen.
I will never forget this woman from Target. I will never forget the almost incapacitating mixture of emotions I felt in a very short time – from blinding anger, to gut-wrenching sorrow, to unparalleled joy. I will never forget the ride home with my boys, my pulse throbbing well past my head and into my lashes as I sobbed silently from relief and wonder.
I will never forget my quivering voice and the way I held my own and I will never forget the way it took my breath away when the same person who had caused me so much pain turned around and caused me so much happiness.
Mostly though, I will take care not to forget that it’s my job as Andrew’s mom to teach others about autism, and not assume that they should know; that it’s my job to thwart judgment with truth and kindness, and that it’s up to me what others will take away as they cross paths with my son and I in this great big world.
Will they be confronted by an angry, defensive, rude version of me? Or will I encourage and facilitate understanding and compassion by being an example rather than just someone who demands it from everyone else?
I hope you’ll join me in my efforts to educate, empower, and eliminate misconceptions about our community in a way that builds us up, not tears us down; in a way that will make a lasting imprint on the hearts of those who might otherwise allow fear and ignorance to guide them; in a way that will generate more spontaneous hugs near the fluffy towels and plastic marmalade bowls.
I promise you; there’s nothing else quite like it.
*For reasons I can’t yet disclose, I’m experiencing severe regression in this area. My view of society and the way people interpret and judge my son has suffered great setbacks in the last six months (I’ll fill you in eventually. I promise). So today I have chosen to publish this post to my blog, which originally appeared in my special needs column for The Orange County Register in July of 2012 as a way to remind myself that there are still plenty of good people out there who just need to be educated in autism kindly and patiently. Mostly though, I just needed a way to remember that there are more good people out there than bad ones and so today I cling to this post and its message.