This is a post by Kammy Kramer, mom to Elliott (12), Henry (10) and Ada (6). Both Elliott & Ada are on the autism spectrum. Kammy is the Autism Speaks Family Services Community Liaison in Minnesota. According to her blog, she enjoys strong coffee, pretending to run and writing about our daily triumphs, struggles and light-hearted moments on her website Reflections from the Red Couch: Life with Autism and Other Adventures.
Recently, something happened that I just can’t get out of my head. It wasn’t earth shattering and overall, it was the most ordinary of days, but I’m still thinking about it today, so I feel the need to share it here on the Red Couch.
It started out just like every other day – kid drop off at school, then a quick trip to the doctor’s office to test my vitamin D levels (huh – imagine that – low Vitamin D in Minnesota), and then I had to pop into the grocery store as the trio had requested cheeseburgers for dinner. As spring has (fingers crossed) finally sprung here in MN, and we had a crazy busy evening of activities scheduled, I was game for grilling their requested menu, and stopped at the store to pick up the few items we needed, which, as luck would have it, were few in number but spaced all over the store. It was mid-morning on Tuesday, which is kind of a perfect time to go to a grocery store, and as I scrambled up and down the various aisles, I ran into the same 3 shoppers more than a few times. We did the Minnesota nice smile the first few times, and then frankly it got a little awkward, but I digress.
It didn’t take long for me to note that there was 1 shopper in the store who had a very frustrated toddler. Having traveled that path a few years ago – it registered for me as empathy for a parent likely trying to finish shopping close to a young person’s preferred nap time.
And as I ran from baby carrots to buns – all the way across the store, I never actually saw the sad toddler, but I noticed the volume level ramping up in a big way, and now accompanied by some sort of serious pounding which kind of sounded like a hammer. By now, it was fairly impossible not to notice the situation from all corners of the store and my heart went out to this over-the-edge toddler and his or her parent, who I imagined might be ready to throw in the towel on this unsuccessful shopping trip.
Now as I stood in the check-out line, the pounding sound got closer and had become so loud, accompanied by some screaming, that I couldn’t help but turn in their direction as they came around the corner spontaneously out of concern for their safety.
And that’s when I saw them – a young man and his Mom, making their way through the store. He was likely in the 10-12ish age range, and was not crying at all, but vocalizing in a fairly loud way, jumping & waving his arms in the air, all the while holding a clipboard that contained a list, and occasionally whapping it against the cart – which explained the hammer like noise. I smiled at them as they passed, crisscrossing the store on their own journey to complete their list, and realized how easy it is to make assumptions about others, and how I hadn’t even considered this could be anything but an overly-tired toddler.
I wanted to explain myself to her, to reach out and let her know that we were members of the same club – parents with special-needs children, and that I noted how positive and calm she was even as her son struggled. That I’ve been shopping before with a frustrated tween carrying a clipboard, and lived through meltdowns and rage filled outbursts over things like choosing the wrong check-out line. That I get why she chose to shop on Tuesday morning when only a hand-full of people would be in the store, and that whether her guy was frustrated, communicating in his own personal style and/or ticked that his Mom didn’t want to buy him Lucky Charms, that I noticed her encouraging him, smiling at him and looking at him with eyes filled with love, strength and hope.
I drove home thinking about them, hoping that they had experienced some moments of success and/or progress on whatever goals they were working on that day. And I also thought about being a Mom of 3 - 2 with ASD - and not considering, even for a split second, that the loud noises I heard in that grocery store could be anything but a frustrated toddler, and how I felt like a jerk for being so assumptive.
How many times have I received the nasty looks from other shoppers when E has freaked out in the check-out line about whether we use self-checkout or that I ask him to bag instead of stare at the register? How many sneers when Ada would dangerously attempt to perch on the edge of the cart or jump off the bags of salt pellets just for fun?
Sometimes, they are bold enough to say out loud that they think I’m a crappy parent, but most of the time, it’s in the eyes – the all-knowing “this parent clearly doesn’t have rules or accountability and her kid is proof” look I get while I guide a screaming-12-year-old out of the store.
It’s easy to be assumptive – my kids don’t look different and there are crappy parents in the world. Heck – I really may be a crappy parent, but if so, I’m a crappy parent with rules and accountability!
In the end, I realized yesterday that I’m no different than my sneering friends, and clearly I have plenty of room for growth in this department. So even though April just passed, and I feel about as aware and accepting of autism as can be, my grocery store experience reminded me what it’s like to sit on the other side of the table.
Last night, all 5 of us got to take part in an awesome therapy session about making everyday tasks more fun for your family. All 3 of our kiddos asked for a clipboard to write on, and for some reason, that made me smile . . .
Read more about Kammy's experiences on her blog Reflections from the Red Couch: Life with Autism and Other Adventures.
*Note: The picture above is of the Kramer family with Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton. Kammy's son Elliott got to speak at a press conference and thank Governor Dayton for his support of the autism community. Kammy's family joined him in April 2013 to Light it Up Blue. In May 2013, Minnesota became the 33rd state to enact autism insurance reform. Learn more here!