Strengths, Stretches, and Autism: More Lessons from the Thrift-Shop

H and I are the same in many ways: we don’t really like shopping or malls but we love the thrift shop with its lure of the find and the potential of treasure. Buying H’s clothes there means they are soft, and comfortable, and can be inexpensively replaced if they are ruined in when he’s inventing in the shop, or climbing, or…???

This time – H needed pants. We have a method. He gets to look around for treasure, whilst I load the cart with pants that may (or may not) be a possible match. He and I meet up when I have the load of potential garb ready for trial – and he has usually found some wonderful thing that will be his reward for trying on all the stuff. I know he doesn’t like trying on clothes – so this is the pleasurable thing at the end of the task (and no – new pants are not an intrinsic reward for my 14-year-old). I ask for permission to use the largest changing room – which is also always the one on the end. This helps a bit, one less sensory issue – one less overwhelming thing.

I take a deep breath, reach deep to muster every ounce of patience, and the onslaught begins. I used to buy clothes and bring them home for H to try on – and just return what didn’t fit. We have moved on from that… one small step at a time (big steps all).

It is Wednesday night… the store is almost empty… but open late: ’till 9:oo.

I gently wrangle H into the changing room as he eyes the cart. I outmanoeuvre his query about exactly how many pairs of pants are within – by explaining that I cannot tell because of the way they are piled – but I think it is about 10 minutes worth.

I deftly switch the subject to my wonder anes_tetris-1t his find… a pristine NES Tetris Game circa 1985. It is a long pass to my retro gamer boy, who catches it… figuratively… and can talk of little else for the next few minutes. Effectively distracted, we begin to build momentum for the task ahead.

I ask H to pass me pants as they fit – or don’t – and one at a time, I trade for a new pair, sorting and encouraging as we go. We make a kind of game of predicting whether the pants will be passed under or over the door each time. I am organized. Probably, too, I over-prompt and unintentionally add to the noise and sensory overwhelm. I work to be aware of this and keep the mood as light as possible.

Over – under – over – over – under: pants are flying in and out. Some fit – most don’t – and this entire scenario is difficult for H. Music, lights, small room, expectations, and Aaaack… trying on clothes!! I get it. I find it overwhelming too.

But I am there to support – build skill – lighten the mood – create a game or distract…

H is loud – and funny too, but not every utterance from within H’s stall is polite. His wit and sweetness are mixed with a tone that is cheeky – sometimes rude and disrespectful. He is at capacity – and I knew this was coming. This is why I remembered to breathe – to dig deep for my patience – and I am ready to advocate if needed.

A lady emerges from the booth beside H.

She whispers: “Does he always talk to you like that?” (and I am grateful at least for the whisper)

“No – not at home. But this is difficult and he is overwhelmed by the lights and sounds and expectations. This is all he has left to complete the task right now – he is at capacity with his sensory issues and is doing his best.”

Her stance shifts: “Oh – I am so glad I didn’t say  anything – I have a daughter with CP and sensory issues – I get it.”

I smile, “Yes. You get it then. I appreciate you asking and not judging – this is how we build skill.”


H and I make it through the heap of pants.

Three pairs make the cut… along with the coveted NES Tetris game cartridge.

H looks at videos by the checkout. We have an ongoing arrangement: he knows at checkout time he needs to be with me if his treasures are to be purchased.

I take another minute, before we do the line up. H looks at videos by the checkout – and I pretend to look at the items in the locked case. But really I am just calming… reclaiming my poise and releasing my stress… remembering to breathe. I too am at capacity.

On the way home, I share how great he did and list the positives. I also share that a woman asked me if he always talked like that to me.

“I’m sorry mom. I didn’t mean to be rude or disrespectful.”

“I know. I don’t need you to be sorry. You are learning to handle things so well, and it was not easy to try on all those clothes. Right now you are learning to understand and explain what you need. Being able to do this in a way that sounds okay to others will take time – and sometimes you may yet not be able to do so.”

“Oh mom… were you embarrassed?”

“No! Definitely not! I am proud of you! You did great tonight. I did think it was important to tell you what the woman thought. I think it is important to get to a point to be able to talk to others respectfully even when you are upset, so that they will want to hear your message. That is a skill – it’ll come…”


And now I am writing this tale and I cannot sleep. It is early Saturday morning – or perhaps very, very late Friday night. I cannot stop thinking about our dialogue and I can’t help but reflect that approximating typical is a difficult path indeed. I worry about the pressure of my expectations… the sirens of typical that sing me to their rocky shores. The strengths of my child – should not inversely become a liability to extending him understanding and support.

I certainly cannot pretend I’ve got this figured out… I am struggling. It scares me that it is so difficult to unwind – to get right. And too, there exists in this the possibility that I may not get it right, which is simply not an option!

The lines are not clearly drawn – it is a tangled thing.

This place where expectation and identity meet…

H cannot yet sing his advocacy – and I have to welcome it – support him in his strengths and stretches. I cannot jump upon the one thing not yet achieved and somehow let that be dismissive or overshadowing of the amazing resiliency and accomplishments of this child.

A year ago I suspect I would have told him I was embarrassed – but now I see this differently. I also would have felt like my explanation to the questioning woman, was making an excuse – rather than advocating for the needs of my child. I have changed. My advocacy is changing. My knowledge and vision for what my child needs, and my ability and willingness to listen to what it is he is saying about what he needs, continues to grow. I no longer want to force his silence for my comfort. If his words aren’t sweet… there is a reason! I am building an understanding that my child does not choose his responses to make it difficult for others. He is doing his best.

I don’t expect I got this one entirely right… but I will continue to try…

Next steps…

Related Posts:
Welcoming Your Dissent: A Poem
Treasures I found at the Thrift Shop: Autism and Understanding
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, (2013)

About Leah Kelley, Ed.D.

Leah Kelley, M.Ed, Ed.D., Writer, Consultant, Activist, Speaker, and Educator, working with Teacher Candidates at UBC. Authors blog: 30 Days of Autism. Projects support social understanding, Neurodiversity paradigm, Disability Justice, and connecting Disability Studies in Education(DSE)to Educational Practice. Twitter: @leah_kelley Facebook: 30 Days of Autism: Leah Kelley
This entry was posted in aproximating typical, Autism, Autistic Shadow Traits, Goals, limits, Neurotypical, Parent, Resiliency, self-advocacy, SPD and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to Strengths, Stretches, and Autism: More Lessons from the Thrift-Shop

  1. rebelmommy says:

    Fantastic illustration of a little trip to the thrift shop, and how very many things that both our children and we as parents, have to take into consideration in such a little trip. I relate to so much of this. The constant mindfulness it takes to be a good advocate is extremely challenging, much like the sensory and social expectations that H must maneuver through himself. I think the open and honest relationship you guys have, must be the thing that does heal. You are in it together, the growing and building skills thing. Thank you for being a few steps ahead of us, and sharing your growing together stories.


    • Leah Kelley says:

      Yes… I agree the constant mindfulness can be challenging. I know you understand this as well – that it is worth it because that state gives us our best learning – and gives our boys, H and YRx2 (Young Rebelsx2) their best support. Have no doubt at all that I am learning much from you as well. I am so often moved by the beauty and joy present in your mindful steps with your beautiful duo and reflected in your photos and your writing. Your support and comment mean so much!
      Thank you Lovely Rebelmom… ((Hugs))
      (If you have not visited this wonderful blog – I encourage you to do so! It is listed on the right in the blog roll “Raising Rebel Souls”)


  2. educating and promoting awareness one little step at a time. it’s the only way.


    • Leah Kelley says:

      Yes… one tiny step at a time…
      It just so happens that I went back to the thrift store alone today. I had the opportunity to talk to the manager (whose child I taught in grade 2 and 3) and let her know how supported and not-judged we always feel by her staff. I didn’t have to thank her – perhaps. Perhaps in a perfect world this should just be the expectation, but we are not yet in that place. I know that she will now commend her staff for their sensitivity and understanding – and a few more people will have their ability to be supportive and understanding reinforced and expanded a little bit. We work to support and reinforce our children in their strengths and positive gains… we have the skills to extend that to our communities as well. Ripples… perhaps, but ripples can be very powerful when there are many pebbles in the pond…


  3. Kathy Bever says:

    love this!!


  4. Wordbird says:

    “A year ago I suspect I would have told him I was embarrassed – but now I see this differently. I also would have felt like my explanation to the questioning woman, was making an excuse – rather than advocating for the needs of my child. I have changed. My advocacy is changing. My knowledge and vision for what my child needs, and my ability and willingness to listen to what it is he is saying about what he needs, continues to grow.”

    You hit me right between the eyes with this. My daughter is 8 and I am still treating her as an ordinary kid and not really addressing her differences. And I guess it’s time I learned more about Aspergers and about her and start advocating for her and helping her to build skills. It’s a really useful way to think of it.


    • Leah Kelley says:

      I am pleased if the post spoke to you. There is so much for us to learn as parents of these wonderful children – and there is so much opportunity to do so when we are open to it, as it sounds like you are. Thank you for your feedback 🙂


  5. kermommy says:

    So many small details that make up our lives and activities. We forget until we try to see it as our kids do, not just the physical input, but the expectations, the social nuances, making decisions, conversational norms…that they can and do navigate this at all is amazing. When we get frustrated and overwhelmed, it is only a tiny window into their experience. You are a fantastic mom, to see the problems, identify, and not get angry that sometimes they aren’t there yet. Because sometimes, neither are we.


  6. Thrift stores are a great solution to having to break clothes in. I buy most of my jeans “preloved” for exactly that reason. More importantly though, I wanted to comment on how matter-of-factly you let H know that his words/actions were perceived in a way that he might not have considered. It’s obviously a strategy that works well with him.

    Talking to others respectfully when you’re upset . . . I still struggle with this at times when my resources run low. Just last night I snapped at something my husband said and for no good reason other than I was frayed to the breaking point and didn’t have the energy to filter. I have no doubt that you’re right about H doing his best. Sometimes it’s just . . . hard.


    • Leah Kelley says:

      Yay… thrift stores rock!! I may have to steal that term “preloved” – it’s wonderful!
      I appreciate your perspective about the matter-of-factness of our conversation. I do work on this so that he doesn’t have to unwind my emotions from the situation. He is sensitive and layering on my emotions can be overwhelming when he is at his limit.

      And you are so right about interactions when resources are low… “Sometimes it’s just . . . hard.”


  7. I loved reading this. It reminded me of so many times at stores wanting to buy clothes but I didn’t want to try them on and I didn’t understand why we couldn’t just return them. Couldn’t stand the fluorescent lights and crazy mirrors everywhere. My mother was not like you, although she tolerated my random outbursts even though we had no clue what was going on as I wasn’t diagnosed until much later. What I find so awesome is that
    you have so much pride in your son and are advocating out of love. You are such a strong woman, not because you love your son, but because you love your son as a whole and provide such a support system for him. I wish I had had that when I was younger, but then again, no one knew.


    • Leah Kelley says:

      Thank you so much for your lovely affirming comment. I am so moved! Hugs to you, Gretchen!
      PS. How goes the Children’s Book??


      • Unfortunately, I am still seeking an agent. A publisher had reached out to me and last week (after many many weeks of waiting) sent me a polite “no” email. But I won’t fall apart. I can’t. This book is not for me.

        Hang in there soldier. Big hugs to you!


      • I was moved by your post as well by the way. I think you just cemented that I have a blog post I have to write that is going to be extremely emotional but I won’t sleep until its done.


  8. jlbunt says:

    thanks for this post leah – i think it’s one that so many of us can relate to… and, gives such wonderful insight to how our kids also view ‘the dressing room’. emma has such a difficult time with this as well – her expectations are high when we first begin, but when it comes down to actually trying on the clothes… that’s when everything starts to spiral downward. sometimes it makes it easier, because she has her sister with her, and they try on clothes together – but not always.

    thankfully, i have found a pair of ‘soft pants’ that em LOVES, and i can purchase them for her without having her around. they like jeans… act like jeans… only they are extremely soft, without any zippers or snaps!


    • Leah Kelley says:

      I can totally relate to your daughter. I used to feel that way shopping and recall that I always ended up in tears as a kid. Always! I think you are bang on about the level of expectations as well. I still don’t like shopping – especially for clothes – but can meter it out in short bursts and when I have a lot of spoons available. Thank you so much for your comment… and yay for the soft pants!


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  10. Brilliant article and shows you know exactly how to deal with the issues that are faced by a parent with a child with ASD. You responded brilliantly, explained everything fully and you and your child are benefiting from it. Well done, keep blogging!

    I can remember clothes shopping with my mum for the two of us, and it was not pretty 😉


    • Leah Kelley says:

      Thank you for such a lovely and affirming comment! I appreciate that. There are certainly lots of times when I don’t get it ‘right’… but l continue to learn from my child and our journey together.


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  12. Pingback: Welcoming Dissent… Self-advocacy, the communication hierarchy, and rethinking tone | Thirty Days of Autism

  13. I really appreciate how you talked about your own needs in this blog. When I would forget to include myself in the ones who need to prepare for these outings, I would always get into trouble and we both would spiral toward a crisis. Thank you for showing that self-care is an important part of all steps – the preparation, the store time and the debriefing. Maybe you can add a “mommy” treat to these types of activities to acknowledge the stress of the situation. I want to be clear here – not that you or H are creating stress – but that these overstimulation environments will always create stress. When I finally found clothes that fit me just right, I stopped going into stores and just buy things online now (my solution to avoiding this stress).


    • Leah Kelley says:

      ((Corbett)) ❤ Thank you…

      We are moving to the point now as well where I am talking about my own needs with H. I find this tricky – because unwinding demand and expectation from that is not easy.

      So – very carefully – I am sharing my experience, and hopefully not layering in guilt or shame… but giving him the opportunity to see how interactions are just that – and that we affect one another – and that he is not alone in his experiences of sensory overwhelm or working to manage the stress of overstimulation.

      Your comment has me thinking on another angle as well: I want H to see in me what you talked of as self-care – so that this too is modeled for him as he transitions to adulthood.

      I also like your idea of adding a treat for me (of course I do – lol). It might be interesting to plan a treat at the end of a challenging time for both of us – so we can co-acknowledge our efforts.

      Appreciation and love to you my friend ❤


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