You’re at Target. Caribou in one hand and phone in the other as you randomly stroll the aisles. Suddenly, a piercing screech interrupts your peaceful momcation to the Holy Land of retail therapy.
You hear a child screaming. You wonder if he is possessed. Or being abducted.
You walk towards the noise to make sure the kid is okay. You see a boy who looks about ten. He is jumping up and down, slapping at his mom’s arms, with tears running down his face while he loses his marbles in the Lego aisle.
For a second, you think, “Geez, lady. Can’t you get your kid under control?”
You see his mom kneel and talk quietly to him, “No, honey Target doesn’t have a red Ninjago Lego dragon.” You hear her offer choices: does he want to make his own red dragon from the big box of Legos at home or does he want to get his iPad at home and look for one together online? You see him start to calm down. You see him give her a hug and then they turn and walk away. You return to your shopping and wonder if he will ever get his red Lego dragon.
Now is a good time to tell you that, no, he has not gotten the red Lego dragon. Yet.
I’m the mom you saw in that aisle at Target.
And the boy? He’s my oldest son, Hunter. He is my tall 7-year-old who has autism.
When people encounter our family in public during a meltdown, it’s either very entertaining or very disruptive. It depends on whether the viewer is using a lens of judgment or a lens of understanding.
A screaming, kicking and crying child in the Lego aisle at Target is not a pretty sight. The dirty looks, negative comments made within our earshot and curious stares used to hurt me much more than they do now.
When those moments strike, I focus first on helping my child, but what I’d really like to do is tell the person looking at us that my son is so much more than his meltdown.
WHAT I WANT THE WORLD TO KNOW
I’d love for them to know he is a real person with hopes and dreams and challenges and amazing abilities. To know that he is younger and less mature than he appears. To know that he has feelings and understands more than you realize and he cares about so much more than red Lego dragons.
To the people looking at us in judgment when they see our family at one of these moments, I say:
Here is a child having a hard time keeping it together right now. At the crux of it, he is feeling big emotions that he can’t quite control independently yet.
Here is a sweet boy with the greatest laugh you will ever hear.
Here is a boy who loves his little brothers fiercely and has very protective instincts towards them.
Here is a boy who didn’t have any friends for the longest time and now has one really close one.
Here is a boy who loves to help his mama cook and then beams with pride and a shy smile when dinner hits the table.
Here is a kind little soul who loves every single type of forest animal and can tell you all about its habitat, what it eats and where it sleeps.
Here is a little boy who has the most amazing bond with his grandpa, cultivated by weekly trips to therapy and followed by pancakes, ice cream or chicken nuggets at McDonald’s.
Here is a little boy who falls asleep to dreams of owning his own toy store and deciding which Lego sets to sell.
Here is a boy who is passionate about fishing and so excited to show everyone his latest catch.
MY DREAMS FOR MY SON
My dream for Hunter is that others will open their eyes and hearts to him. My dream is that the world will embrace him with open arms. My dream is that the world will be aware of his struggles and gift. My dream is that he will live a life of acceptance and inclusion.
I know that my dreams are not unique. Other autism mamas wish for the same things. For their child to be understood. For their child to be looked at with compassion. For their child to be celebrated when they accomplish hard things.
A STORY ABOUT T
Take my friend, Desiree. She dreamed of finding the right sport for her boy, T. It was a process that took some trial and error. T loved sports and had a tough time handling his emotions during team sports. For example, he tried soccer and had a really difficult time dealing with other kids touching him, pushing, or not playing to their fullest. So that didn’t work well. Then she decided to enroll him in a karate class. An individual’s performance determines success in karate. Desiree suspected it might be a good fit for him.
Recently, T competed in his first karate tournament. Desiree thought that the noise, large crowds and long stretches of downtime between events would be hard for him to handle. Yet, he surprised her and surpassed all expectations she had for the day. He came in 4th place out of his class!
And that is something to celebrate!
T earned more than a medal for himself that day. He lit a fire in others. I’m inspired to guide my son into new experiences. To keep trying when the first activity or the second or the third doesn’t click for my son. I want Hunter to experience the increased self-confidence that comes from doing your best and meeting a goal.
WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?
Desiree and her doggedness in helping her child find his passion is encouraging. She didn’t give up. She kept searching for the thing that would click for T. And T’s determination to succeed? I get goosebumps thinking about it. Hearing their story, and others like theirs gives me so much hope for my son. My parenting style has evolved a little bit, too. I’ve learned that some of the biggest successes come when you step outside your comfort zone and take a risk. And I’m trusting my instincts more.
Being vulnerable and sharing our stories here is another step towards leaving my comfort zone. If sharing a slice of our reality helps even one parent feel less alone in their autism journey or someone else reads this and becomes more compassionate towards a parent working through a meltdown, then the discomfort is worth it to me.
So the next time you see a kid losing his mind over Legos at Target, please don’t be afraid to look my way and offer a smile. To me, it would be so much more than a friendly gesture. It would be one small sign that our world is on the path to autism acceptance.