This is a post by Kimberlee Rutan McCafferty, mother to two sons on the autism spectrum and an Autism Family Partner at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). Kim is also the author of a blog about her two children with autism, at autismmommytherapist.wordpress.com.
I battle what seems like gale-force winds to open the door to the movie theater, and Justin sneaks his hand out from between my intertwined fingers, making a mad dash for the popcorn. I clutch at his coat and manage to halt him in his tracks, and after a bit of cajoling am able to propel him over to the fairly long line for tickets. After a brief skirmish he thankfully relents, and we make our way over to the dividers, my son sharing his enthusiasm for movies and popcorn with a loud “eeee” to everyone around him.
I smile to see him so happy, and notice two young boys with their mother staring raptly at Justin, who is literally bouncing up and down in time with his vocal pronunciations. I watch as one boy pulls on his mother’s sleeve and points at my son, and I see her whisper something in his ear. Our eyes meet and I smile, because it’s hard not to notice Justin when he’s this loud, and she tentatively smiles back. I’m about to turn away and attend to my boy, when unfortunately I regard what I like to call her “look chaser.”
It’s pity. Blatant and pure pity. And I am enraged.
Fortunately, for the better part of Justin’s life I’ve been spared this indignity, perhaps because we’ve resided in places where I feel the residents have empathy for special needs kids, or perhaps we’ve just been lucky. I am thankful Justin never seems to register these looks, is generally immersed in what he’s doing, usually happy in his surroundings. I feel his hands on my face as he angles me in for a kiss, which he does dozens of times unprompted throughout the day, and some of my anger melts away. I wish however that I could pull her aside and tell her to save her pity for someone who needs it, because that need surely does not exist here.
If I could speak to her, this is what I would say:
Leave your pity at the door. We need your compassion and acceptance, nothing else.
Telling your son to look away from mine does nothing to educate him about differences, and celebration of those differences. Teach him to embrace those with a neurology different than his. This learning begins with you.
My son can’t speak, but he seems to understand almost everything we say and do. Think about how that look of yours could affect him. Imagine if someone looked at your child that way, and he saw it.
My son, who has severe autism, is a gift, a beautiful, intelligent, loving gift. He’s amazing, and I wouldn’t trade him for the world.
Eventually, the longest line in history ends. I purchase our tickets with one hand restraining Justin and one navigating through my wallet, and we encounter yet another long line for his favorite treat. I notice the family of three has boycotted the snack stands, which leaves me to focus on our carb target, and remember where to find our theater. Justin’s enthusiasm has been somewhat tempered as food has come into play, and he eagerly follows me to our seats, focused entirely on the butter-laden kernels he will soon consume. I settle us in, but before I dispense with his snack I lean in to kiss him and he smiles, then points to what’s really important.
Food. He is so my son.
I am calm now, and I lean forward before the trailers begin to tell him two more things, sentiments I impart to him on a daily basis, usually multiple times.
I tell my son I love him. I tell him that he is the best boy in the world.
And he is.