Sunday, June 15, 2008

He's Retarded, Do You Know What That Means?

Over the years I have learned to accept the fact that my sons have autism. There were times when it wasn't easy. There are still times when it is not easy. Whenever L. should be making a milestone that the other children his age have hit it hurts me all over again. I think that whenever I see someone staring in public or acting as if he was from a different planet, it also makes me experience the heartache anew.
When L. was just four he was the size of a six year old. I didn't have much of a choice, when I went somewhere I had to take him with me. My husband worked two jobs and there was no switching guard duty, like the way we do it now. He comes home, I run errands, he has to leave, I come home. In this way we have avoided the difficulties of fighting him in public.
On one particular occasion I took my son L. and my two other children to the store with me. It nearly broke my back, but I managed to haul him into the cart because he had a tendency to run away. You can imagine the complications of him not being able to tell anyone his name, age, address, or telephone number if he were to run off and get lost. Although I had good intentions when I confined him to the cart, he was not happy. He began to really throw a fit, to the point that I got some curious glances.
One woman approached and began to good-naturedly scold him. "Now you shouldn't be putting your mother through such antics," she was telling him. "There's no need to behave that way. You need to be a good boy."
I politely explained that it was no use for her try and talk him out of crying. He likely had no idea what she was telling him. I told her that he had autism. She was very kind and seemed sympathetic, saying she understood because she drove the bus for the school system and had a few special needs children that she drove back and forth.
During the duration of our short conversation an elderly man tried to pass my cart. L., in desperation, reached out and grabbed him, trying to use him as leverage to get out of his caged prison. Well, that did not go over so well. The older gentleman became very angry. He began yelling at my little son, chastising him for his bad behavior. At this point the woman, thinking she was coming to my aid, looked at the man and said, "Sir, he is autistic."
I suppose the man had never heard of that term before. He seemed confused. "What?"
She became very indignant. "He's autistic," she tried to explain again.
"What's that?" he wondered.
In a huff she replied, "He's retarded! Do you know what that means?"
Oh, how I wish the floor would have opened up and swallowed me. In all fairness, I knew very little about autism until L. was diagnosed, so it was understandable that not everyone else understood it too. But that day the woman's words struck me to the core. I thought to myself, if adults can't even behave civilly to a child of four years, what will lay ahead on the road before us. Luckily, I've never faced such a scene since, or at least not to that magnitude. I still get the questioning looks, or the people thinking that they are protecting him by asking if everything is alright or if he's my child, to make sure I'm not abusing or kidnapping him when he's in one of his 'vocal' states. But I still can feel the embarrassment of that incident, as if it had happened just yesterday. It has been a lesson to me to not be so judgemental towards others, when I do not know or understand their circumstances or their set of problems. It maybe is just payback for all of the times I condescendingly said to myself, "My child will never act like that!" when witnessing something that was probably similar to my own crying child in the shopping cart that day.

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