I was out at Walmart one day with my son, Johnny. As he has a tendency to do when he’s excited, he was chattering loudly and gesturing with his hands. It was mostly words he saw on signs or numbers on price tags. I praised him for using his voice and his words, which only made him talk louder and get more excited. We were having a blast, and I was so thrilled just to hear him talk and laugh, whereas just over a year ago he could not communicate as well.
Meanwhile, other patrons and some of the employees were either staring or glaring at us as we shopped. While we were in an aisle, Johnny was loud and gesticulating with his hands. A random person in the same aisle asked, “What’s wrong with him?”
I swallowed my irritation, plastered a fake smile on my face and answered, “Nothing. He’s just excited.”
“Why’s he doing that with his hands?”
“He can’t verbalize his feelings yet, so that’s how he conveys his excitement. He has autism.”
Her visible annoyance was replaced with pity.
“Oh, I’m so sorry.”
My ire started to bubble up, but I held it back, smiled, nodded and walked away.
Unfortunately, parents of children with autism may encounter a similar situation like this at some point. Some people seem to think because our children are on the spectrum that there’s something “wrong” with them and we need their pity. They’re also convinced the parents and caretakers require sympathy because our kids aren’t “normal,” and we’ll also never live full lives because of that.
Well, here and now, that stigma ends. Here are five things you shouldn’t say to a parent of a child with autism:
1. “What’s wrong with him?”
Nothing. Having an autism diagnosis doesn’t mean there’s something wrong. My son just learns how to interact with his environment differently than you do. I’ll give you an example. If you see a pretty flower in the garden, you smile and stop to admire it. Johnny might see the same flower and also smile, but his excitement extends beyond his smile, and he might run into the garden and mash the flower with his hand. While you understand how to appreciate the beauty of the flower without disturbing it, he doesn’t quite get that and has to be taught. He’s not wrong, he just learns at a different pace.
2. “I’m sorry.”
I’m not! My children are as happy and healthy as yours. Why on earth would you be sorry about a child? Sure, they might react a little differently when you first meet them. And yes, I may look a little harried when my son is chatting up a storm, and my daughter, Jordan, has her hands clapped over her ears, yelling at him to stop because the sound of his voice is too loud for her. But I’m not sorry. I don’t need sympathy or pity for any of that because they’re happy, healthy and greet each morning with a deep breath and a smile. Just like your kids.
3. “Just tell him to stop.” (When he’s screaming or loud.)
It’s not that cut and dry. As I stated before, he learns at a different pace than you. He has to be taught with thorough repetition and often with the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS). Just telling him to stop isn’t effective because what he’s doing is his way of communicating. Would you like it if someone told you to stop when you were trying to talk?
4. “Isn’t he too old/big for that?”
This is my “favorite.” I got this once when we took the kids out to eat, and I requested a high chair for my son. He’s a big boy but still needs to be in a carriage at the store and often a high chair at a restaurant. He’s getting better at learning the appropriate behaviors, but because of his delay, he’s still not always easy to control. He gets antsy, he runs and he bolts. I have to do what I can to keep him safe and keep him calm. So no, he’s not too old or too big for that. I requested it for a reason because I know what my son needs. Please don’t question me and just do as I ask.
5. “He’ll grow out of it.”
No, that’s not how autism works. The diagnosis doesn’t just go away like a cold or the chicken pox. And it’s not a behavior like a temper tantrum that can be unlearned. My children will always have autism, and many people with autism go on to live full lives. Just look at Temple Grandin!
There are many more inappropriate comments, but these are just several of the most common ones I face when I’m out and about with Jordan and Johnny. So please, do yourself (and me) a favor when you feel the need to chime in when my children are doing something you think isn’t “normal” or are having a hard time in public: don’t.
Follow this journey on Autism Momming 101.
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