As a young child, I was always mothering my younger cousins. I’m a nurturer and it seemed that I had an incredible amount of empathy even then. I’ve been overweight since I was about 10 and one by-product of that has been my empathy for others. Being judged by the amount of weight you carry is such an awful feeling, I went out of my way to not judge people based on what I saw. Walking in someone elses shoes is an incredibly hard thing to do, and frankly, most of us don’t do it well at all.
This past weekend, while at the grocery store, Little TDJ and I encountered two very ignorant and vocal women. We exchanged words and our interaction left me feeling hurt and angry. I started writing this post on Sunday, but I was still too angry. Realizing that my anger would do nothing to help the situation, I decided to try to use the moment to share a bit of insight.
There are many who fight about using the terms autism or autism spectrum disorder, they fight about calling it a disorder, disease or disability, they fight about “managing it” vs “curing it”, they fight about whether vaccines cause it or not, etc. I simply fight for my sons right to live a full life. I fight for him to be treated with the same kindness and respect that we are each entitled to.
The grocery store can be an overwhelming experience for many children with autism and Little TDJ is no exception. Because of the bright lights, loud sounds, loads of people and his discomfort with knowing “what comes next”, a supermarket can be the setup for a perfect storm. I try to shop without him, but that’s not always possible. So to prepare, we look at picture of markets and watch a few minutes of a cartoon like Team UmiZoomi as they take an adventure to the supermarket. In the car on the way there, I tell him calmly that we’re going to the market several times and encourage him to clap about our trip.
On Sunday, we set out on a quick trip to pick up a few items. Our trip started off pretty well. My son rode in the cart happily and had fun by announcing the number to each aisle that we passed by. Little TDJ is in love with numbers and knowing their patterns is like a soothing balm for him. He understands numbers and delights in predicting/remembering their patterns. In his delight, Little TDJ shouted the numbers very loudly. Yup, I’m all about full disclosure. His voice is loud, and sometimes he even yells. My son didn’t babble much as a baby until about 15 months and he uttered his first word just before his 2nd birthday. He’s so excited to have found his voice and he wants to be heard. Since he’s not crying and we’re not in a movie theatre, library or Catholic church, I let him enjoy himself. I do encourage him to “talk softly” by placing one hand over each of my ears, a gesture that he understands from school. Right now however he’s too excited and he can’t. **shrugs** We shop on.
Once done, we get into a short line and prepare to check out. Little TDJ is now focused on reciting the numbers to the check out stations. We are at line/stand 7. Unfortunately for us, lanes # 6 and 8 are not open, therefore the numbers above the lanes were not lit. As Little TDJ counted down from check stand 18, after speaking the number 9, he got to 8 and paused. Since the 8 wasn’t lit, it flustered him. It was an unexpected scenario and one that he was unprepared to handle. He looked at me and I rubbed his back to soothe him, while nodding before speaking. “It’s ok Little TDJ. The light is off. What number comes next?” He turned away from me and started again at 18. We moved slowly in the line and I willed it to go more quickly because I knew my son was on the verge of a possible meltdown. He paused again when he got to 8. His eyes welled up with tears and he pointed at check stand 8 accusingly. I tried to speak to him softly and distract him with counting the keys on my key ring, but he wanted none of that. He began to shake, cry and he asked for his “Bink” aka pacifier.
So, mouthy ladies 1 and 2, decided to start a whispered dialogue about my son. Y’all, I can ignore most things from the mouths of strangers and I normally do, however this little convo was intended for my ears.
Mouthy 1: You could hear him screaming all through the store, I thought somebody was attacking him or something.
Mouthy 2: And look at him now with a damn pacifier in his mouth. Child that big has no reason for a damn pacifier. If he can say his numbers, what he need a pacifier for?
Mouthy 1: ***laughs loudly*** You ain’t neva lied. Must be retarded or something, and the mama too. That’s what’s wrong with kids today, their mamas don’t know how to raise ‘em right.
I swear it was the “r” word that got me. I hate the word and find it highly offensive. A few months back, there was a discussion over at Creole in DC’s blog but I didn’t chime in. I don’t know about you guys, but sometimes I read interesting posts at other sites and can’t quite get my thoughts together at that moment to write the kind of response I’d like to write. I didn’t even want to include the word in this post, but I wanted to convey things the way they happened.
A quick internal discussion ensued. Did I need to say something or could I let it go? I know that my son does not suffer from mental retardation, nor do it. Was it important to let those women know? Aside from the laughter and scorn, I heard judgment in their voices. Did I care that they were judging me and making a snap determination of my parenting skills? And if I did care, why? The people who know and love Little TDJ and myself know what kind of child he is and what kind of mother I am. We’ve discussed his usage of the pacifier thoroughly with his medical team and we’re all on the same page. Why was I so upset with two strangers whom I would never see again?
I could come up with a really long explanation but here’s the quick and simple truth – their comments weren’t nice and they hurt my feelings. My son isn’t yet able to understand those kinds of conversations, but when he is, I’m sure those comments would have hurt his feelings too. I was offended for Little TDJ, for myself, and for other special needs parents and children. So, I let loose on them. In my head, it went something like this:
But, in reality, I spun around and said, “You don’t have a right to know, nor do I have a responsibility to educate you but I will so that someone meaner than me won’t whoop your asses one day. My wonderful son has autism. Neither his counting or sucking a pacifier to calm down are any of your f*cking business. He’s not retarded but clearly you’re both stupid as hell. Watch your mouths and mind your business!” I was shaking when I finished. I whipped back around and paid for my groceries. From behind me, four other patrons were doing this:
Once Little TDJ and I got into the car, I thought of a million other things that I could have and should have said to them. But, in that moment, I was too emotional and I’m lucky that I was even able to be that coherent.
I recognize that we all people watch. It’s human nature. We notice things and we make assumptions. Then sometimes, we take our assumptions a step further and make judgments and often, when in the presence of others, we turn those judgments into jokes to be shared. I’m not the moral authority on anything, but I suggest using more empathy and I encourage folks to not be so quick to make assumptions and harsh judgments.