Today my boy and I were skulking in a thrift store – hunting for treasures. It is one of our favourite pass-times: something we can do together, an adventure of sorts, and always there is the promise of finding something absolutely remarkable. For me that would be some lovely 1940’s kitsch, movie memorabilia, photos or art, or old miscellaneous collectible bits and pieces. For H the treasure could include old movies or electronics, retro pop culture stuff, anything Star Wars or Star Trek, or even a really cool hat.
Today we were rummaging in the basement of a store that is the depository for the unwanted items from any number of local thrift stores. The search requires sorting through mounds of junk, loosely organized into boxes so that it remains on the tables (mostly) but with no thought to reining in the chaos beyond that. It is a bit overwhelming perhaps – but the promise of treasure is a heady lure and we are both able to suppress our sensory issues with the knowledge that there is lovely lemon hand cleanser awaiting us in the car.
Admittedly, I am better at ignoring the sensory issues than my son – who today was at times affected by the noise of the place and also the tightness of space in some of the more crowded areas.
He approached me at one point and showed me one of his finds… then he headed back to the site of its discovery in hopes of finding more of the same.
As I continued with my scrounging, I heard two women near me discussing the lack of manners of a child and commenting on the lack of parenting – or poor parenting that this child was most certainly receiving.
H had passed by these women when he had come to speak with me, and as I listened my suspicion was growing that they were in fact referring to my little darling. I lifted myself out of my preoccupied-archeologist-mode and at the realization that, indeed, it was my child that was the cause of the affront, and I listened and observed more closely.
Apparently H. had said ‘excuse me’ to these women and then rather abruptly pushed by as he said ‘thank you‘, jostling the women and also bumping their baskets.
I hesitated for a moment while I considered discussing this situation with them. What I noticed was that I experienced a couple of different feelings: I was a bit embarrassed, a bit defensive and angry about their judgment of my child (and me), and a bit afraid that these women might be unreasonable and that perhaps talking with them might turn into an awkward confrontation. I must admit, I am a notorious avoider of conflict.
However, I am also an educator and a huge part of my practice is in working to understand the experience and perspective of others, and to work to support the understanding and acceptance of those who process differently or who experience the world differently. I am looking to build bridges – not walls; understanding – not anger… for my son, for others, and for myself.
It bears consideration that if I cannot extend understanding and listen to others – whether or not I am in agreement – then I am not modeling the attitudes I would like to see extended toward my son (and others like him). So I stepped-up, and engaged these women politely. I explained that I thought they might be discussing my son and I also explained that he was on the Autism spectrum. I was not looking to pull the autism as some kind of “get out of jail free” card, but I did think it was relevant in explaining the situation. The women countered that they knew about autism and that one of them was a foster mom to two children on the Autism spectrum. I thanked them.
At this point I still felt a little bit angry: if they had kids on the Autism spectrum – then why were they so judgmental?!? Then it hit me – they weren’t… my son’s actions were rude… and inappropriate. These women had noticed and highlighted a gap in H’s social thinking that had been below my radar. Across the room, I talked to H about the experience of the women and their perception of his actions.
“The words ‘excuse me’ and ‘thank you’ are the right words to use, but we need to talk about what they mean.” I explained that the words excuse me needed to be accompanied with wait-time for the people to move before you go past.
“When you say ‘excuse me’ it doesn’t mean ‘look out here I come’ or ‘excuse me for banging into you’ rather, it means, ‘please would you move so I can get by,’ and the ‘thank you’ is in response for moving to let you by, not for allowing you to get into people’s space.”
“Oh – I – did – not – know- that!” came H’s commonly used response of enlightenment.
As he gained this understanding, he needed no encouragement to go over to apologize. The apology was very well received and very much appreciated by the women. They reinforced what a great kid he was to come over and talk with them and that this took courage. They shared a peek into each others’ baskets and discussed their finds, and balance was restored to the thrift store universe.
So then… what had happened here? It would seem that my willingness listen and observe – and not just react, enabled me to gain insight into a few gaps in my son’s social processing and help him to gain greater social finesse. This experience reinforces that when I can put aside defensive reactions and my own judgments, I create opportunities to increase acceptance and understanding which benefits myself, others, and most importantly, my child!
Actually, I think everyone involved gained a little more understanding, and that, perhaps, was the greatest treasure found at the thrift store today.
Later in the car, as we were further debriefing the experience, H stated, “I wish you had told me that two years ago… I really did – not – know – that!” I explained to him that at that time he was busy learning to say ‘excuse me‘ and use his manners, and that now he was ready to learn more; that really – this was the next step. However, the truth of the matter is that, until today, I had not really considered the complexity of the social dynamics involved, in terms of unspoken meaning and expectation, in the ‘excuse me’ exchange and interaction.
Sometimes it still surprises me that every little thing needs to be taught to my child, and that something that is on the surface so simple, can have complexities that can boggle the mind. It has me looking very closely indeed, and learning new things each day…
30 Days of Autism is a project designed to fight stigma, promote civil rights, and increase understanding and acceptance for those who process and experience the world differently.
© Leah Kelley, Thirty Days of Autism, (2011)