I Used to Apologize for Our Special Needs Family in Public. Now I Do This.


Growing up with a socially different mom had its challenges, and most of them were made up in my head.

When all eight of us kids were small and growing up with a single mom struggling financially, you’d imagine going out for meals would be an almost-never experience. And yet, because my mom knows the value of learning social skills and loves teaching in real world environments, and because eating has to be done anyway, going out happened most months.

Learning social skills was a pretty big deal in our house! My mom adopted six of her eight kids, and five of my six adopted siblings had various special needs. Fetal alcohol syndrome, autism, Irlen syndrome, Tourette’s — the list of words we learned while growing up with my adopted brothers is almost endless. Of course, because my mom herself grew up with similar words thrown at her, she never saw words when looking at us kids. She saw people.

People in the restaurants we visited didn’t usually follow in her footsteps. To them we were messy, loud, rude and scary. And for too many years, I was on their team.

I liked eating in restaurants because it meant not having the chore of doing dishes. But I found myself always apologizing for my family, especially my brothers. And I found myself wishing my mom wouldn’t be so rude or expect the world to be accepting in ways it obviously couldn’t be.

My brother might steal a french fry from a neighboring plate and my other brother might climb the table or put his lips on your fork, and my mom would look at both patrons and staff with a curt smile and expect them to be OK with it. Believing that as the strangers watched her explain to my jumping, stimming, squealing brothers why they couldn’t steal or lick people’s forks, they’d see she was dealing with it and it would be water under the bridge. And almost always at some point during the meal she’d let everyone know it was too cold in the restaurant and she had to go now. That we needed doggy bags and the bill now.

My mom had sensory issues and synesthesia, and she assumed the world dealt with similar issues. She had an overflowing basket of children and love, and she expected the world to understand, or at least try to.

But I mumbled apologies and I begged Mom to do the same. I gave waiters and cashiers apologetic glances and looked at my own family with troubled eyes that saw mess and inconvenience.

Why did I care so much about the strangers? Why did I care so much that I would apologize in front of my brothers, hinting to them that they were a problem we were carrying around?

Because despite my mom teaching me otherwise, I let the staring and fear of strangers speak louder than love, that’s why.

But it’s also true that my mom’s socially different ways didn’t let her put artificial politeness ahead of people. Especially not her people.

Going out to restaurants with my family was about teaching my brothers, my sisters and I social skills. It was not supposed to be about apologizing for our challenges. While I apologized, Mom taught. While I felt embarrassed, Mom felt encouraged by little lessons learned.

But Mom wasn’t just patient with my brothers, she was also patient with me; she was teaching me. And over time, I too learned to teach and celebrate rather than apologize. I began to see all of us through the eyes of Mom, eyes that saw us all as beautifully capable.

Going out to eat with my family now is still noisy, but it’s inclusive. We are friendly and largely appreciated by patrons and staff. We are certainly strange, but kind. And we are unlikely to apologize.

My mom was socially different and rarely saw what we would want to apologize for. I’ve finally been gifted with that social difference, too.

Follow this journey on Autism Answers With Tsara Shelton.

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