My 10-year-old nephew is autistic. Not in a “quirky,” “neurodiverse” kind of way, but in a typical, sometimes agressive kind of way. When our families go out together, as we often do, I like to pretend that people are looking at us because of the eight adorable children trailing us, but I know what they’re really looking at is Jonah: Jonah biting his hand in agitation, hitting his head in anger, or just spinning, spinning, spinning in complete and utter joy. At those times, it’s fairly obvious that Jonah is autistic.
But sometimes it isn’t so obvious. That’s why I could relate to the essay, “A Tale of Two Mothers” by “Mary P. Jones” (a pseudonym) in The New York Times Motherlode column. She writes about a typical excursion to the grocery store with her autistic son, told through the eyes of another shopper, then told through her own eyes. When her son gets agitated because the line is so long, the other shopper sees a poorly behaved boy and his overindulgent mother. When her son gets upset because the cashier botches the transaction and the boy cannot enter his mother’s PIN number as he had planned, the shopper sees a boy who needs limits.
I am always impressed by my sister’s poise on these outings; she never seems upset, never apologizes for Jonah. I think that’s part of the reason Mary P. Jones’ fellow shoppers look at her and her son so askance–because Mary herself stays so calm and collected, never criticizing her son for behaviors she knows he can’t control.
I was once out with my sister and we saw a teenaged boy wearing a shirt that said something to the effect of, “I’m autistic.” I asked my sister if she ever considered having Jonah wear a similar shirt. She grimaced, and told me Jonah’s condition was enough of a stigma, she didn’t need to draw attention to it. I commented on how the shirt might make it easier to explain when Jonah had a bad behavior in public. She shrugged. I suppose parents of autistic kids just don’t have the time to worry about what other people think, they’re too focused on getting their children through the day.
Last year my sister took her family to an amusement park. Because of Jonah’s disability, he gets a handicap pass so he doesn’t have to wait in line. On one ride, as the family skipped the line and boarded immediately, a young man smirked and said, “How do I get a pass like that?” My sister, composed as ever, turned to him and said, “You have an autistic kid. But trust me, it’s not worth it.”