Parents talk about their kids. It’s what we do and why so many friends of ours without children sometimes find us to be a bit much. The only way around it is to be conscious of how much we blabber on about our offspring and make sure to not overdo it…no matter how much we really want to.
I talk about the most mundane stuff to other parents. We discuss what I put in their lunch boxes for school, how much they eat of that lunch, how long they slept, how school drop-off was, how school pick-up was, whether they go on class trips, how much they grow, how long their hair has gotten, how much money they cost, how far they…OK. See? Look. I’m doing it now. Blabber on, Papa Bear.
When it comes to my “neurotypical” daughter, the parental discussion waves into topics most others can relate to. Even those without kids can understand screen time woes and pierced ear talk. If they don’t have kids, then they were kids at one time. So, they get it.
For my 10 year-old son, it’s a little different. Lucas is non-verbal and has autism. Because of that, his life, which has become completely routine to me, is not so routine to others. I’ll tell a story and it elicits a reaction that I’m not expecting.
Oh man. What a day. I got a new shirt delivered online and I had it on the side to put in the laundry. I came into the living room and there he was, chewing on it. He does that. So gross. Now I have to return it because it has bite marks in it. I was like, “Dude! No eating the shirts!” Man, this kid.
Dead stare. Slight frown.
I’m so sorry. Is that part of his autism? He thinks it’s food?
Um, no. He just likes the way it feels in his mouth, I guess. Like a sensory reaction.
Oh no. I’m sorry to hear that. Will he grow out of it?
I don’t know. I didn’t really think about it. I didn’t tell you because…This isn’t like a sad story. I thought it was funny. That’s why I told it.
Oh. OK. Ha, ha?
The disconnect that comes in these situations is that people without a child like mine will often mistake any of his actions, especially those that sound difficult for me as a parent, as a sad commentary about his future. They assume that things like biting a shirt or taking his shoes off on the playground make me cry inside because they aren’t “normal”. My boy and the way he behaves seems to go against the acceptable ways of the world, in their eyes. So, any mention of it must be heart-wrenching.
The truth is, sometimes it can be. There have been moments where I trust him with a plate of mashed potatoes on the table, only to return and see him two hands deep in it. A voice inside me will be chastise my parenting ability for not recognizing his capabilities in that moment. However, those moments are fewer and farther between than others.
My son’s autism is something that I became aware of early, accepting of later, and finally appreciative of today. Even actions that might cause me to roll my eyes like another parent might do with a child who talks endlessly about Minecraft, aren’t overly upsetting. They are usually just another comical parenting anecdote from my the pages of my life.
When some other parents to children with special needs hear about those responding with sympathy to those stories, I can tell that their guards go up. We all have an intrinsic defense mechanism when it comes to our children and the idea that someone is judging our little one’s “disability” brings out the fangs. However, just as others try to understand us, I try to understand them.
For example, Lucas shrieks. It’s not constant, but it can be persistent. When excited, he lets out screams of glee and claps his hands together in an effort to make the loudest echo. It rings throughout the house at all hours and, over the past decade, it has become white noise. We’re used to it. For me and my daughter, it’s part of the house’s background music.
One night, though, I woke up from a dead sleep and heard him, in his room, screaming as loudly as possible. While I had been exposed to his howling a thousand times before, I was groggy and confused. My brain assumed it was my daughter. She was the one screaming. Oh no! My heart jumped quicker than I did.
I started to yell out, “Are you OK?! What is happening!?” Leaping from my bed, I made it to the doorway before coming to the realization that there wasn’t a monster in the house eating my kids. It was my son, awake and bouncing on his bed in a manic moment of sleeplessness. Business as usual.
So, with the same screeches that had just sent me into a frenzy still ringing out, I turned around and collapsed back to bed. It was just the ol’ background music. I know this song.
However, in those few seconds, I got to experience the world that outsiders see. I got to hear the yells they hear when he excitedly hollers in the waiting room of the doctor’s office or Thanksgiving. This is why, quite often, people look over at us when he does it. It’s not judgment. It’s not mean. It’s surprise and confusion. I get it.
You can’t raise awareness without explaining things that people might not know and you don’t know what those things are unless they ask. It’s why I try to stay approachable when it comes to my son’s autism. For me, no questions, when asked by those genuinely looking to understand, are ever offensive.
They won’t ask me, though, if I’m ready to throw fists the moment they cast a gaze in our direction. Papa Bear doesn’t need to maul those who are just trying to learn about something they have no exposure to. If we want others to have autism acceptance, we need to accept those who don’t know about autism. In many cases, we’re their first exposure. We’re the ones who need to help them understand autism for the next time it comes around their lives.
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