As a kid, I used to worry about how people saw me. From how I acted to how I looked, I was easily mortified and didn’t want to present myself in a less than perfect way. I guess you could say I was easily embarrassed.
I felt that way right up until my non-verbal son was about a year past his Autism diagnosis. For the first few months, I still worried about the glares of strangers and tried to hide whatever I had deemed “inappropriate” from the world. That, however, was almost seven years ago. Today, things are different.
I didn’t realize how different until this past Monday. That’s when my daughter’s All-Elementary School concert took place in an overcrowded and sweltering gym at 7:45pm. We all had a ticket, even Lucas.
This family outing felt snake-bitten from the start. As we entered, my son, in a fit of frustration, sat down in the entrance-way of the school, just inches from the feet of those walking in. I knelt down for a minute and tried to coax him up before scooping him up Weekend-At-Bernie’s style. He was sweaty and angry and I could tell it was going to be a rough day because he was already doing that hand thing I hate.
That hand thing drives me insane. In times of agitation, he will take my palm in his, interlocking our fingers, and then attempt to force me to firmly rub his eyes. I try to pull back, but he gets insistent. I’ve come to realize that it’s part stimming and part easing his sinuses. Either way, it’s more than just part gross and probably not the safest thing in the world. I mean, he really jams my fingers into his face and, if I’m not careful to pull back, he could hurt himself. I often imagine the school nurse calling.
Hello? Mr. Guttman? Yes. Lucas showed up to school today with a black eye.
Oh, yeah. He did that. He jammed my fist into his eye.
Sure, he jammed your fist into his eye. We’re going to send some people over to ask some questions.
So, yeah, it worries me. The first ten minutes after we made our way into the room turned into a game of “gimme back my hand”. It wasn’t fun and got less fun as the time ticked by. Right as we finished the Pledge of Allegiance, he had his meltdown.
The first thing to come was his loud whine, which was a major concern. With a parade of school children singing and playing instruments, the last thing I wanted was for my son’s voice to ruin their day. While I love Lucas and make no apologies for his behavior, I also recognize that other people have a right to special events. If we were at a drag race or a monster truck rally, he could scream like a banshee. If we’re at a play or concert, he can’t. In that moment, it’s not about Autism Awareness. It’s about consideration.
In order to combat this moody little man, there was always one tried and true option – sit him in the hallway with an iPhone video while one of us watches through the window on the door. We had begrudgingly done this before, but it always made me feel silly. Why bring two cars and four people to an event that only half of them are going to be a part of? We should all be there to hear my daughter’s amazing violining. That didn’t sit right with me.
So, I let Lucas sit right with me instead. I took him to the corner of the bleachers and allowed him to take the seat that he wanted since we arrived – the one right on the floor. Only now, with random photographers and audio technicians around us, I joined him. It was filthy and, more importantly, we were on display for pretty much half of our town.
You see, the event was held in a school gym with basketball court seating. The concert went on in the middle and the two sets of audiences stared at each other from across the room. Lucas and I were easily visible by a huge chunk of the crowd and he was on some of his worst behavior. He wasn’t being loud, but insanely squirmy. I imagine we were putting on a heck of a sideshow for the North Side of the audience.
I spent the next hour pulling him back from running away and watching as he rolled around on the dust-bunnied tile. Occasionally, Olivia would look back at us and I would give her a thumbs up through my frustrated stare. I’m not sure if she understood how difficult this event was for me, but she knew we stayed and was happy we did. That was important to her. It was important to us too. That’s why I did it.
The strangest thing was that I didn’t care who saw us. We obviously stood out like sore thumbs as everyone else was nicely seated in bleachers while Lucas and I were making dust-angels in the corner. I had no idea who was in that audience either. It could have included friends, acquaintances, or enemies, but it didn’t matter. Let them look. After a lifetime of concern about how I appear to the outside world, this was the moment where I cared the least.
There are two reasons why I didn’t care how silly I looked that night. One is eight years old and the other is about to turn eleven. I would willingly lay on the floor in front of a giant crowd for my son if it keeps him from being overwhelmed. On this day, in this room, for this concert, my main goal was to make sure we stayed until the finish. Sure, we might look ridiculous in the process, but I didn’t care. There was a different goal – one that we accomplished.
The eleven year old in this equation was our motivation. She wanted us there – all of us – and said so. Her brother isn’t an accessory or some hanger-on who joins the family simply for show. Whether he fully understands or appreciates the event is immaterial. This is about family. She wants us all to be there and, short of the building catching fire, there was nothing that would keep us from staying to see her play. Even then, I’d be like, “Let’s just sit where there aren’t so many flames.”
While I could feel all those eyes on me, I have to admit, I didn’t feel singled out. In fact, people tend to be more respectful and appreciative when they see a parent trying to calm their child. They know that I’m putting myself through a hellish situation in order to make this event a positive experience for everyone. I want my son to be happy. I want my daughter to be happy. I want all the other sons and daughters there to be happy too. People saw that. They saw everything.
Even if they don’t, it doesn’t matter. This is about my family and my responsibility to keep us whole. For that, I’ll willingly make myself a public spectacle one hundred times over.