Mom of Child who has Autism Shares on the Things You May Not Know (about that special needs parent )
I was at a restaurant the other night. We made the reservation early as we brought our 6-year-old to a large family dinner. Mateo is on the ASD spectrum and early hours are better for a number of reasons, for restaurants are one of the most challenging places for us to take him. When my son started stimming (redundant or unusual movements or noises that help handle emotions like excitement, anger, anxiety and fear), a family at a table on the other side of the restaurant began to stare. They continued to gape, including the mother, who could not stop staring at me. I tried to contain my anxiety as the looks were not ‘ah, we get it’ gazes; they were more like ‘his noise is making me uncomfortable — get him to stop’ looks. Urgh, here we go again. Four years ago, when being a mother of a special needs child was new, I would apologize, red flames moving upwards through my body from embarrassment. If there were a way out, I would take it, folding my body and my son’s into an invisible ball of shame as we quickly took the first exit. Pangs of guilt would pierce through me for failing to ‘make’ my son normal so all around us would feel comfortable.
Now, fast forward to that moment at the restaurant. I am fierce now; most special needs parents are, as we do not have a choice. We have years ahead of us of advocating for our child one way or another. I did not dash away with my child; we let him stim, no shhhhs from us; he was happy with all his relatives around him. I have accepted that I cannot change how people process or receive my child, but I can protect him. You can give me all the side eyes you want, but I now know my only job is that my child has a beautiful life.
Of course, I wish for more people to understand a special needs parent, for there are numerous things you cannot see. Many do not see the hours we spend advocating for our children while holding full-time jobs. They sometimes end up in the hospital, for their immune systems are vulnerable, depending on their disability. We get blamed for them not acting like ‘other’ kids. We may even get blamed for them being in the hospital. The paperwork we fill out is endless. We have to call the school bus because they may be getting bullied. If they are non-verbal, we are their voice. We cry in the shower. We cry at the supermarket. We scream into our pillows.
What I would have wished the other evening at the restaurant was for that family not to have missed a teachable moment. I often have to share that my son is special needs with pretty young kids at the playground to explain his lack of social skills. They never miss a beat; they absorb the information and are gentler around my son.
One day as inclusivity is more woven into the world, most (hopefully) will not give a person different from them a second glance. And that mother at the table will be educated by her kids and their ‘normal’ experiences. She may understand more that a parent may be struggling at that moment, and a simple smile may help them get through that awkward moment they are experiencing. None of us know everything, and that person may just be a special need parent quietly holding her family — and herself — together.