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I was doing groceries early yesterday morning, trying to finish everything before the lunch crowd came to the mall. I remember I was in the shampoo and soap aisle, holding on to a nine-pack of pink Safeguard, when I started hearing screams, growls, and wailing. Everyone rushed to where the sounds were coming from. Everyone... but me.
I knew right away what it was. I've seen and heard it probably a million times before. The sounds of a meltdown—worse, a meltdown in public—were all too obvious. I took my time with the soap, trying to decide on the scent and color, trivial details, of course. I just didn't want to be where everyone was and be part of the staring, the ogling, the whispering. I've seen those looks before. I knew them all.
When I got back to the cashier check-out counter, I knew I was right. There were people watching, holding their breaths, as if waiting for the next scene in a movie. Many just didn't know what to do and stared dumbfounded. But a few had the look I hated most—the look of disdain in their faces. You can almost read their thoughts there and then. Of how autism had rudely interrupted their lives and they were annoyed at the momentary distraction. Of how the child was holding up the line, making a scene. And how the parents were pathetic fools who did not know how to control and discipline their child. It's funny how easy it is to read aversion in the faces of men. Nothing can mask hate.
My husband gave me a lowdown on what had happened. He had been at the checkout line before me when I had run to get the soap. The boy, probably ten years old, had something taken away from him- food, my husband thought—and he was disconsolate at the loss. The boy had his mom and several other adults with him.
"Do they need our help?" I asked my husband.
"No," he said. "His mom's a pro. Look at how calm she is. She's got it under control."
I smiled and whispered again, "Now, if we can only get all these people to stop staring. I hate it when the same thing happens to us."
"They just don't know what autism is. They're probably curious too, you know," he said kindly.
I have to admire my husband's compassion for those who cannot summon the same for children with autism. He's always been an idealist. I used to be one too, but these days, I think of myself as a realist. A pragmatist. And as much as I continue to hope and pray for a future of acceptance for my son with autism, I have given up holding my breath for it to happen soon.
Once in your lifetime, you will come across a mom or a dad struggling with a child in full meltdown mode. If and when you do, please, please do not stare. If you would like to help, approach the parent and, in a gentle voice, ask if there is anything you can do to help. Many times, that parent will decline your offer of help. We autism parents are often like that. We don't want to bother anyone else with our problems; we bend over backwards to make accommodations that others will not do for us. Offer it again anyway. If he or she accepts, then help with an open heart. If he or she says no, then stand back and move away, but leave a parting word of encouragement, if you can.
If you must look and keep a watchful eye, do so with this thought in mind: that what looks like a wild, undisciplined child may be a child in pain and his/her parents are doing all they can to help him/her. They need help and understanding, not judgment and scorn.
They say it takes a village to raise a child. I say it takes the whole world to raise a child with autism. Please stop staring and be part of the world.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of HerWord or BusinessWorld.
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