Friday morning Zion and I stopped at the Walgreens on Michigan Road to buy a few items for his lunch.
As he piled his applesauce and instant mac-n-cheese upon the counter, he began to jump up and down and squeal out of excitement.
You feel the same way about mac-n-cheese.
As he Tigger-bounced and clapped, the cashier tilted her head to the side and looked at me with a pained expression.
“Does he have autism?” she asked.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Awwww, the poor little thing. Bless his heart.”
Now…if you’re not cringing, you probably should be. I’m not exactly known for taking these sorts of comments with an open heart and a closed mouth. But in honor of special needs moms everywhere, I am going to write today’s blog Choose Your Own Ending style.
I reach into my bag and pull out a business card that contains the information of several websites that educate people on autism.
She refuses the card.
I immediately tense up.
My eyebrows furrow.
I look that cashier directly in the eye and tell her how rude and ignorant and back woods she is.
She defends herself by raising her voice, until I become indignant and condescending.
The manager steps in to try and intervene.
I drop-kick them both in the jittles, set fire to the store, and stand in the parking lot drinking a Manhattan while it burns.
I reach out and take my son’s hand. I pull him closer to me, and I say “Zion, this is Sandra.”
Zion says, “Hi Sandra. How are you?”
Sandra says, “Wow, he talks really well.”
So I say, smiling, “Just speak directly to him.”
She ignores my words completely, and goes on to tell me a story about a friend of hers who has a “down syndrome child.”
Was it offensive and ignorant?
But I still ended the conversation by saying this:
“Sandra, people with autism or down syndrome or any kind of special needs just want to be treated like everyone else. You are talking about him like he isn’t here. But he is here, and he understands everything we are saying.”
She apologized. And commented on how beautiful Zion is.
So again, I said, “Tell him that. Say it to him.”
And she said, “You are a beautiful boy.”
Then Zion said, “Thank you! We’ll see y’all later!”
I think we all know which of these endings actually happened.
But if you are the parent of a child with special needs, you certainly understand the propensity for the Scrubs-esque type of ending. Ending #1 has popped into my mind more times than I am proud to admit.
And sure there was a time when I was defensive and angry and wanted to beat up cashiers for stating the obvious.
That time was Friday. Just kidding.
That time has passed.
I have long since gone through the stages of grief, and have accepted my beautiful son for who he is…and our life for what it is. Unfortunately rude and uneducated people will always exist. But what I’ve had to realize is that they are not trying to hurt me. Or hurt my son.
They simply just don’t know what to say.
So I choose to educate. Not to be cruel or condescending or insulting. Just to teach.
So with complete kindness and a smile on my face, I address the uncomfortable situation.
And walking away from that moment, I have to accept that my words may not have changed or even impacted that woman at all. It is very likely that she will have the exact same conversation with the next customer who comes in with a special needs child.
But do you know who is changed by my speaking up?
He learns that he can be social.
He feels that he is loved and supported and accepted for who he is.
He understands that autism is nothing to be ashamed of.
He sees that he has a mom who adores and protects him and cares about his growth and well-being.
He sees that he matters.
In the mean time, I learn that I can show kindness to challenging people.
I feel that I am doing my job as a parent by not only using that moment to teach my son, but also by educating a stranger about how I expect my beloved to be treated.
I show my son that he is not invisible.
And then maybe someday Zion will have the courage to step up on his own and say, “I am Zion. I am here and please speak to me. I matter. And it’s nice to meet you.”