Dear Shopper: My Son Has Autism, So Please Stop Judging My Parenting

autismWe love the blog Flappiness Is because writer Leigh Merryday tells the truth about what it is like to parent a child with autism. There are good days and bad days and everything in between, but the love shines off the page like a beacon and it is impossible to not to love them all right back.

She was kind enough to share a post with us for Mother's Day and you will see why we love her. See below:

Dear Shopper,

Yes, I know. I’m well aware that my child is screaming. Not just a regular scream, but an ear-piercing, sanity-shattering screech.  Even if I wasn’t seeing and hearing it, I would know by the expression on your face.

Clearly, you have raised your children better than me.

That is what you were wanting to say, right? There certainly can’t be any other purpose to you stopping in your tracks to stare or elbow your companion  or better yet — give knowing looks to other shoppers passing by.

I have no doubt that you have wonderful, well-behaved children.  Grown, tax-paying, law-abiding citizens who would never have dreamed of screaming like this in public when they were children.  Judging by your expression and utter exasperation, you’ve never hesitated to let them know who was boss.

And I know that you did your best with your children, that you loved them, and want all children to have a solid upbringing in which to start their lives. You are, in all probability, a good person. You probably don’t mean any harm.

This is what complicates what I want to say to you. Because, despite my anger towards you, I happen to have been raised well too. I don’t want to be ugly, even though right now I feel like it.

Because I know some of that anger is misdirected. It is misdirected because I, too, have stood in judgment of someone like me. I, along with almost everyone, have stood in public and watched a scene like this one play out and thought to myself, "Clearly she has no control over her children.  When I have children, mine will never behave like that." I, like most people, wasn’t quite as obvious about it as you. I didn’t stare or make comments that could be heard.  But I was every bit as decided. So, some of my anger is really directed toward Human Nature, who refuses to be put in its place.

The nice thing about human nature, however, is that it can be overridden. And all it takes is but a single experience, a single human interaction, to the contrary of your own strongly held convictions. Then presto whammo — you are a new and hopefully improved person.

Let me introduce you to my child. Like you, I marveled at the miracle of life upon becoming his mother. Like you, I rocked, burped, and inhaled his sweet baby scent and thanked God over and over for the gift of him. Like you, I had certain dreams for my child. There your path and my path diverged somewhat.

My precious child is autistic. Yes, I’ve seen Rain Man, and, no, my son is not likely going to be a great card counter. The truth about autism is that it encompasses a wide spectrum of abilities. And, like you and me, every autistic child who has it is different from the next. Yet they do often share some similar traits – sensory overload and meltdowns are one of them.

Every person on the planet has what I think of as an internal alarm system. Most of us have ours in good working order. But some people with autism have what I like to call a hair-trigger alarm system. Theirs can go off with what seems to average folks like little to no provocation. There IS always provocation. Non-autistic people simply aren’t as sensitive to seeing and hearing the triggers, and that’s when the alarm goes off. And when it does, it’s loud.   Everyone in the vicinity wants nothing more than to have it turned off, including the people who love them. When you see me "placating" my child and "giving in" to his tantrum, I’m really just desperately looking around for the alarm key or trying to remember the right code to turn off that blaring alarm. It isn’t his fault. And, no matter how upsetting it is for you, let me assure you it is that much more upsetting for him.

I’m sorry that you haven’t had quite as pleasant of a shopping trip as you had anticipated. It hasn’t been so pleasant for me either. Problem is — I have to feed my family, deposit my paycheck, pick up prescriptions, etc. just like you do. And, unfortunately, no one arrived at my house today to watch my child so that his autistic behavior wouldn’t upset anyone in public. I have to leave the house and so does my child. Because I have to teach him about the world. I have to let him practice controlling his alarm system. So that he, too, can possibly be a productive citizen making come true all those dreams I had for him when he was so small.

With so many advances in early detection and therapy, many of us will be able to see most of those dreams come true for our unique children. And for some of us, our dreams will have to change for our children. We may need to re-define happiness and success.  For life is like that. We constantly have to reevaluate our expectations of ourselves, others –and, sometimes, even the grocery store.

I’m hoping that your single human interaction with me has given you an opportunity to be a better person. For, with 1 in 91 children being diagnosed with autism now, you are going to have a lot more opportunities to make a positive impact in the life of someone like me. All it would take would be a smile, a pat on the back, or a “Bless your heart, honey, hang in there” to refill a stressed out parent’s reserve of patience and calm. You could be the bright spot in our day. And, then, if you want, you are welcome to ask all the questions you want.  Your curiosity doesn’t offend me in the least.  Most of us aren’t the least bit upset to talk about our kids – any more than you are.  If anything, it is an opportunity to educate and dispel myths.

And, maybe, just maybe, you will be standing there when the alarm gets turned off.  Maybe you will get to see what every mother wants the world to see – the wonderful personality of her child, in our case hidden behind a mask of fear, anger and frustration.

Who knows?  Maybe I’ll get to see the one hidden behind yours.

Do you ever feel like this mom?


Image via thisreidwrites/Flickr



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Irish... Irishlass77

So very well said.  Beautiful.

Ameri... AmericanVenus

Well said, thank you. Yes, I understand. While my son is not on the autism spectrum, he does have sensory integration issues and there are things that cause sensory overload, a penchant for not taking "no" or "not right now" for an acceptable answer and can have sensory meltdowns where neither I nor my husband can reach him. I recenly had an experience in a doctor's office in which he told me I needed to train my child the way baby elephants are trained -- by using a tether to keep him from misbehaving. Now while he was using it as a metaphor, it angered me and I have left the practice.
It is so difficult to go shopping, go on vacation, go out to eat... but we have to give him (and us!) a sense of normalcy.

I really feel for this mom and hope that the Judgy McJudgersons can turn into better helpers.

nonmember avatar Pam

If there is information in this letter directed at parents of non-autistic kids, it gets lost in the writer's anger and frustration at her own perceived conclusions as to what others think of her parenting. If a child in a public place creates an "ear-piercing, sanity-shattering screech" people will look. I get the writer wants people to be compassionate and understanding but this is just obnoxious - "I'm hoping tht your single human interaction with me has given you an opportunity to be a better person". She needs to worry less about the strangers.

jalaz77 jalaz77

Pam-I agree. It doesn't matter if the child is autistic or not THAT kind of screaming will make anyone turn around and look. I would be sad if someone dismissed that scream, what if it was a scream that needed attention? Abuse, maybe? Kid has an injury, maybe? Now staring is another story but a look? Sorry nothing wrong with a look, then move on. That's what I do. I am human I look, assess quickly and move on cause it may be a melt down-I have been there-or autistic. When my kids have those ear piercing melt downs we leave, thank god it's rare but it happens.

Todd Vrancic

Over-defensive much, Pam.  It did not come across to me as angry, just as one human being pleading for a little more understanding.  If a child's screaming really bothers me and it's not my child, I can walk away, but if you are the parent of the screaming child, and he or she is in public with you, you can't walk away, because you have to keep your child safe.

Brenda Harper

I liked the letter and YES I have gone through some of these similar instances while my son was young.... I even go through them a little bit now that he is 18. Believe me, when he gets into one of his streaks while out and about, imagine the looks I get now that he is a full grown adult. Trust me, I stopped caring about what others thought and have cussed out many shoppers in the process.  I guess you just get a thick skin to ignorance.

Now, giving the fact that many parents of "typical" kids do not either know how to discipline or choose not to discipline their children... it makes it rough on those of us who have kids with challenges. People believe we are all lazy and allow our children to run and scream through the stores as if they are playgrounds.

Understanding goes a long way.....Take your judgment and misguided concepts about our children elsewhere

nonmember avatar Shannon

Don't worry, I'm only judging you if you and your kid are morbidly obese and you are tossing chip and cookie bags in the cart... I think the author is worried a little too much that people are judging her --- they're too busy trying to shut their own kids up, talking on their phones, or whatever, to pay attention.

bills... billsfan1104

Brenda, cussing people out doesn't help your situation. People will look, it's human nature. They look to make sure no harm is coming to a child or to someone. I find this letter very hateful an judge mental herself.

nonmember avatar IslandMomOf4

The ear piercing screams of a child will turn the head of almost anyone. It is engrained in our DNA to have a physical and emotional reaction to this. So, it's natural to look but not natural to talk shit. How about asking the frazzled mom in the checkout line if you can help her. If she says, no...then be compassionate and tell her your sorry she's having a rough day. I think most people would be surprised at how well received it might be!

nonmember avatar Dannii

When you hear a 100+ dB sound, it's a reaction to look. When a child screams, and a parent does not remove them, yes, I will stare them down. I do not care what ailment causes what, it does not excuse the parent from removing the child, being polite to others by not just sighing. If I see someone outside a restaurant with a screaming kid, I give the upside down, Muppet smile "Awww, you poor thing, I've been there, too". When someone wants to use an ailment to excuse them from general manners, it's not a hall pass. Does autism suck? Yes. Is it everyone else's problem to endure? No. Venting about it is fine. Stares may be a cue that you must accept what has become your cross to bear and take the kid outside, showing others that you care for their right to be able to run errands without having to help you watch your kid. And - you would welcome questions? Get real...who in their right mind would walk up to someone with a kid having a meltdown and say "Tell me about your child's disability." If someone said that to me, I might knock the living sh*t out of them. Just act like you care by trying to stop the screaming fits - and then when someone stares, launch a missile at them with your eyes and ask them what the hell they recommend for a remedy for an autism related public meltdown. The ball is in their court, because if they dare be snotty at that point, it's all on them. We have no way of knowing that the kid is incapable of controlling themselves, nor is it our duty to ask.

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