When Scott and I had been married about four years we took a 6-month-old Adam to a quaint petting zoo just outside of Las Vegas. In all of its Old West glory, Bonnie Springs is the ideal G-rated activity compared to the commercialism and sensationalism of Las Vegas. This place is a miniature wonderland for kids, set near the famous Red Rock Canyon and complete with a train ride, an Old West restaurant, a ghost town with “shoot-outs” on Main Street and unique novelty shops. And the animals are different from the typical sort you’d find at any other petting zoo. Above and beyond goats and horses, you’ll find llamas, deer (who eat straight from your hand), flocks of peacocks, exotic pigs, etc.
While were there I remember being highly annoyed by a young man, probably in his 20’s, who seemed to have no manners at all. He stood so close behind me that I could feel his hot breath on my neck. I remember thinking, “Dude – do you even know what personal space is?” I became even more annoyed as I saw how much a grown man was enjoying petting the animals. “Why would an adult be here without children? This is a kids’ place, you ding dong. And why in the heck do you jump up and down with excitement when you feed the deer?” This man was preposterous! He was sucking my enjoyment. He was ruining my perfect moment with my perfect husband and my perfect baby. He seemed to be wherever we were and I wanted him to go away. He made me feel uncomfortable.
Recalling that memory makes me want to shrink to the size of pea and slide right out of this chair that I’m sitting in. I can barely believe how judgmental and horrific my behavior (though mostly internal dialogue) was that day. I later saw that young men with a middle-aged couple, who were surely his parents. They laughed at his elation and guided him through the rest of the attractions.
Based upon my last 14 years of personal experience, since Adam’s regression, I know now that this sweet and innocent young man had autism. Although he looked completely “normal” his actions certainly did not. I know now that this man, with his five-year-old cognitive ability, was enjoying the zoo as any typical five-year-old would. He stood too close to me because, as many individuals with autism, he had a hard time gauging “appropriate” distance between two strangers – whatever “appropriate” is supposed to be anyway. He was thoroughly enjoying himself (thankfully seemingly unaware of my condescending eye rolls and judgmental attitude towards him). He had every right to be there! He squealed as the peacocks huddled around his feet and the goats tugged on his shirt.
Several times the past years, we’ve experienced down-right ignorance and meanness towards Adam. Once at McDonalds when Adam was about four-years-old, he snatched a man’s cheeseburger from his table. I was about 10 feet from Adam and I remember struggling to through the ball pit to get to him before he got to the stranger’s cheeseburger. I could tell from Adam’s expression what was on his mind! Alas I failed, and once Adam seized the cheeseburger, this grown man got down to face level with Adam and yelled, “What in the hell is the matter with you!” Luckily I made it to the scene of the “crime” just seconds later. I apologized to the man, explained that Adam had autism, was on a special diet to heal his gut that didn’t allow bread or cheese and that because of his disability, sometimes things like this happened. I threw three bucks on the man’s table and turned around, Adam’s chubby hand in mine, with tears in my eyes.
Another time, Scott, Zac, Adam and I were standing in line for an attraction at Las Vegas’ Wet ‘n Wild water park. The fabric of the lady’s bathing suit in front of us must have appealed to Adam, because before we even realized what happened, Adam starting rubbing her suit, right where her rump was. I quickly grabbed his hand back, but the damage was done. She flung her head around and berated, “You little pervert!” I again apologized profusely and explained that he had autism.” The woman’s countenance changed immediately and I could tell she felt bad for calling a six-year-old pervert.
I’ve been called a bad mother in public. I’ve been advised to “get a grip on your little punk.”
I could go on and on and describe at least fifty or more incidents similar to these. But my point today is that I forgive these people and their hasty judgments. I forgive them, because before autism, I was just like them. Though I kept my judgments primarily to myself, I was ignorant. I am sorry young man at Bonnie Springs. I am sorry that I was ignorant, immature and that I judged you.
Autism has opened my eyes and made me a better and more understanding person. And though I am light years from perfect, I do stop to contemplate what may be going on in someone’s life before making a hasty judgment. And not just when it comes to a disability. That part went away the day I learned Adam had autism. But even if it’s an outwardly crabby lady who cuts me off in the grocery store line. Who knows? Maybe she’s got a terminally ill husband or child waiting for her and she’s in a rush to get home and make dinner and sit by her loved-one’s side. Maybe she’s recently divorced and having a hard time being happy. The point is, I don’t know and am therefore not obligated to judge or get angry.
Now, this post would not be complete if I did not also acknowledge all of the kindness extended towards our family precisely because of Adam’s autism. Last year in Arkansas, an anonymous family paid for our nearly-80-dollar bill at Mimi’s Café. They were touched by our interactions with Adam, they’d told the server. I’ve been ushered to the front of lines by strangers who see me attempting to keep Adam calm and regulated in a long grocery line.
At Wal-mart a couple of years ago, a woman in line behind Adam and me (who happened to be a special education teacher) took the time to say, “I really admire the way you interact with your son. I love how you are involving him in the process of checking out. He’s really proud of himself and the role you’ve provided him, isn’t he? You’re doing a great job mama – keep it up.” Of course I cried on the spot. I was trying really hard to make this meaningful for Adam and having a complete stranger acknowledge it broke my heart in the sweetest and most tender way. I needed that recognition that day.
And just as I could list several uncomfortable and sad moments, I can also list many like the one at Wal-mart.
We will continue to be judged in the future. I know that. I accept that. It doesn’t bother me anymore. And it’s becoming less and less as people become more and more aware of the autism epidemic. But we will also continue to have arbitrary acts of kindness shown too. I am grateful for that.
I would be a hypocrite if I judged those who judge Adam. I forgive you already. I forgive you, because I did it too.