Gray Matters: Autism, please be quiet if you don’t understand

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You’re standing in line at the supermarket and can’t help but notice a child acting out. He keeps telling his parents he wants to go and has to go right now! You see the mom and dad talking in a soothing voice but the kid just keeps getting worse. You turn to the person next to you and say, “This is ridiculous. They should either discipline the kid or drag him out of here.” In that moment you are apparently an expert on what is happening with this stranger’s child. Maybe you should get a clue. Maybe you should shut your mouth. Maybe you consider that something is happening in real time in the middle of this store that you don’t understand.

What you don’t know is that the child in question has autism. Normally he’s OK shopping with him mom or dad but today the store is just a little too loud and too bright and he is having a meltdown. Understand one thing that can be summed up in four little words- it’s not his fault.

I bring up this scenario because I sat in a room Saturday night with about 150 other people and heard a father talk about his son. He wanted us all to understand that when you are the parent of an autistic child it can be wonderful and heartbreaking at the same time. He told us that when he and his wife had a little boy he was already making plans to teach him sports and do all sorts of things dad’s do with their little boys. Then something changed. He didn’t develop the way they expected and one day the phone rang and a doctor on the other end said, “It’s as we feared. He has autism.”

There was barely a dry eye in the house as the father swallowed hard and told us, “In that instance everything changed and I had to wonder. Maybe he won’t play ball. Maybe he won’t grow up and get married and have kids. Maybe he won’t have friends. Will my little boy sit alone at school because he’s different? Will the other kids make fun of him?”

I thought I understood autism but I didn’t. You can’t understand until it happens to someone close to you and then you want everyone to understand. You want to say, “Please don’t stare at my child.” And “Please don’t judge me for the way he’s acting, it’s just a bad day.” And most important, “Please, please…. it’s not his fault.”

None of us is perfect. We would be wise to remember that. And the next time you see a child out in public acting out, take a breath and realize you have no clue what is happening or why. You’d be better off smiling at the parent and saying, “It’s OK; I’ve had some tough days too. Can I help in any way?” Just your smile and gesture of kindness will make a tough situation a little better.

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