Today was one of the rare occasions I got to bring my grandson Noah to therapy. His mom is always the one to do it. I usually stay at home with him unless we go to the grocery store or some other little errand. He will sit in a basket and look at all the lights and colors just like all little kids his age. He loves the grocery store — and Lowes. He really likes Lowes. I don’t know why that’s his favorite, but he loves it. Maybe it’s the high ceilings or the tall shelves or maybe even the smell. It smells like outside, and he loves outside. Whatever the reason, he’s very quiet there. His body stays calm and his eyes are wide and bright. I could stay there all day and not hear a word from him.
Because he’s so quiet and because he’s still so young, nobody really realizes or sees his differences yet. If they ask him his name, I answer. It usually goes something like this:
Random person: “Hey little man. What’s your name?”
Me: “His name is Noah.”
Random Person, still looking at Noah: “How old are you Noah?”
Me: “He’s almost 2!”
Then, they turn their attention back to me, assuming he’s just shy. This has worked pretty well so far. There has never been any need to explain to said random person that Noah is on the autism spectrum.
But today was different. And the response kind of surprised me.
We were on our way to therapy when I had to make a stop at a small convenience store. I took Noah in with me, got what I needed, and went up to the register.
He was hanging on my hip with his little hand playing with the hair on the back of my neck, twirling it between his little chubby fingers. I love it when he does that.
While I checked out, a nice, older man behind the counter looked at Noah and said, “Hey little dude… what’s your name?”
Noah, of course, completely ignored him and looked over my shoulder to check out this store he had never been in before. I gave the man the obligatory response: “His name is Noah.”
This man obviously wanted to interact with Noah so he touched him on the leg and said, “Hi Noah.”
Noah couldn’t have cared less. The man wouldn’t give up though. He kept tapping his little leg and saying his name, so I tried to get Noah to acknowledge him by saying, “Tell him hi, Noah.”
The man behind the counter looked at me curiously. It looked like he wanted answers. “Why won’t he talk?” he seemed to say. Of course, he didn’t actually say it, but his eyes were asking, “Why won’t he look at me?” Normally, I would have told myself it was all in my head and just politely left with a little chuckle as if to say, “Kids… you know how they are,” but this time, I stopped and thought about it. Maybe I could tell him.
I’d been thinking about the fact that the time would come, one day, to have some sort of explanation for his behavior. That time could be now. Not that this guy deserved an explanation, but he was nice enough. Plus, the store was empty except for me and him.
I could consider this a practice run.
So without really thinking about what to say or what words to use, I said, “He’s autistic. He doesn’t talk yet, but he’s getting there.” *Big happy grin.*
The response this sentence received was a little unexpected.
His eyes softened, his eyebrows furrowed, his gaze dropped and he looked right at me and said, “Oh, don’t say that. My son didn’t talk till he was 3 years old. Noah is just taking his time. You’ll see.. ” with another little pat on Noah’s ankle.
At this point, I could have politely left this little store and the nice gentleman inside. I’m sure he meant no harm. He thought he was helping. I could have just said “Oh, you’re right. I’m sure he’ll be just fine.” But I didn’t. Something rose up in me that was so unexpected, it surprised me. It wasn’t anger. It wasn’t aggravation. It was a sudden awareness that he didn’t know what autism was. He thought I was telling him my grandson was somehow broken. That he needed to be fixed. Like I thought he was subpar and I was calling him a name. Autistic. He didn’t understand.
I decided to “inform” this man about autism. I made it my duty, right then and there in that tiny little convenience store. He needed to know the truth.
I told him it was more than just his speech — it was his eye contact and how he gets overwhelmed easily and how he doesn’t really acknowledge people he doesn’t know. I was spewing, in a very polite way, facts about autism that I had read about for the past year.
1 in 68 children…
It’s hard for him to make conversation…
He’s really smart and knows his ABC’s…
Einstein was believed to be autistic…
By the end of my little lesson, there were a couple of customers behind me and a look of confusion on this nice man’s face. He just smiled at me and said, “Early steps came to my house once a week for a while, and now my son is fine. Maybe you could try that.”
Well… that was a failure.
He didn’t get it at all!
I left there feeling a little defeated, like I hadn’t done my job. I was supposed to be an advocate for Noah. I’m supposed to inform people about autism, right?
Maybe not like that though.
The thing is, I want people to get to know Noah. Not “the kid with autism.” It would be nice if everyone understood why he does the things he does, but I want them to know him beyond that too.
I want them to know how he loves to snuggle with his G-Paw at night in his big chair.
I want them to know taking him outside gets the biggest laughs from him.
I want them to know how bubbles make him squeal with delight and how when he’s tired he runs around the living room in an endless loop, screaming with joy, just before he passes out from exhaustion.
He’s such a happy little boy.
I want the world to know him.
How do I do that?
I don’t know.
But I’m working on it.
In the meantime, I should probably stay away from that convenience store.
A version of this post first appeared on G-Maw and Noah.