For most, it was a typical day at Target. Parents holding hands of small children who were leading them to the toy section, men and women perusing the grocery aisles for their dinner menu, staff setting up seasonal kiosks.
For me, it was an outing that I needed to talk myself into. With my son Joey, a full-time resident at Anderson Center for Autism, at my side, shopping is always an exercise in patience and perseverence. Knowing that his teachers and therapists at Anderson emphasize the importance of community integration, I knew that braving the stares and judgment calls from fellow shoppers, although painful, was worth it. Autism, a neurological disorder which impacts 1 in 59 people, presents with communication and sensory processing challenges. Unfortunately, those challenges can manifest in the kind of behaviors that turn heads, making “typical” activities like shopping seem impossible – both for the person with Autism and for his or her family.
However, I knew it was important to get him out on the town. The team at Anderson Center for Autism works hard to ensure that he’s constantly exposed to socialization opportunities, and it’s important that we carry out their good work when he’s home with us. So I mustered up the courage and we made our way to Target. And, as is often the case, Joey became overstimulated and began to act out. Within moments, I felt the glares. The feeling that I was being judged by almost every witness to this scene was palpable. I could almost see the questions hanging in the air: “What’s wrong with this mother?” “Why can’t she control her son?” Yes, I knew those looks quite well. They came my way all too often. My heart hurt.
But, just as I’ve discovered kindness beyond measure at Anderson, I saw one set of eyes on the line at Target that were full of compassion. From the group of critical onlookers, a man emerged.
He looked at me and gently asked, “What can I do to be of help?”
As I breathed a sigh of relief, he instinctively looked directly into Joey’s eyes and inquired, “Are you doing okay?” He pulled a toy out of his pocket. Within seconds, this perfect stranger was down on the floor talking to Joey. He treated Joey with absolute openness in his heart, and I smiled broadly because Joey thrives when he’s in the presence of someone like that. I felt a sense of peace blanket my nonverbal son as this man communicated total compassion. In just moments, Joey had shifted from being distraught to being joyful. And so had I.
I’ve thought about this memory time and again. There have been countless other outings that have been excruciating as Joey has gone into sensory overload mode and people have looked on with a complete lack of tolerance; their intolerance compounded his already difficult behavior.
But when Joey sensed that he was accepted exactly for who he is by the stranger at Target, he was able to be the best version of himself. And so was I. I see this every day at Anderson Center for Autism. I hear this type of storyline from other parents of individuals with Autism. And I feel it not only with Joey, but with friends of his who have Autism who, completely at ease in our home, are able to tap into their sense of humor to bring out the more playful side of all of us. When they are comfortable, the challenging behaviors are replaced with confidence and contentment. And the same is true for all of us, isn’t it?
April is Autism Awareness Month. And yes, we all need to shed light on what Autism is all about. We need to acknowledge that with incidence rates on the rise, nearly everyone is touched by Autism. We need to educate others on what it is and how it presents. Businesses can set up quiet hours for families. Neighbors can be mindful of the fact that children with autism on their street are at risk of elopement. Schools can invest in professional development for teachers who have students with autism. Youth can learn that anti-bullying initiatives must be expanded to include this population. Philanthropists can support programs and services like those at Anderson which optimize quality of life. There’s so much to do to raise awareness, and every one of us can help.
But perhaps most importantly, we need to recognize that in judging someone, we’re squelching a spirit. We’re making it harder for that person to be their best. And on the contrary, connecting on a person-to-person level as the Target stranger did, regardless of whether someone seems different or even has any language, we create a safe space for that individual to shine.
While there are opportunities galore to learn more about interacting with someone who has Autism, sharing compassion doesn’t require any special training. So this April, let’s collectively pledge to open our hearts and minds – to be more aware that people with Autism experience the same feelings we all do. Let’s start from a place of love.