To the Strangers Who Stare as My Teenage Son With Autism Behaves 'Inappropriately' in Public


Hello there, stranger.

Sometimes.

I see you staring at my son as he towers over me and squishes my cheeks over and over while I browse the organic produce. I see you wondering why I allow him to kiss me on the lips in public, and I feel your judgment when I don’t reprimand him for wearing the attitude that the two of you are equals, rather than him a 16-year-old boy and you an adult.

I see it, and I feel it, and I respond in my own way. 

If it feels appropriate, I’ll explain my reasons. If you ask outright about us I’m more than happy to tell you. I love to share and discover reasons! And if my son begins to squirm from the weight of your misinformation or judgment or misunderstanding or difference of opinion, I’ll explain to him. Maybe loud enough for you to hear if I feel that will help.

You see, I learned early that allowing my loved ones to be themselves is more important than teaching them to be who you expect. My brothers were all on the autism spectrum, and if my mom taught me or them to act only as expected then we may have all died of self-loathing by now. Instead she taught us to explore our interests and passions and to do so with such comfort that we are able to share who we are with those who may be curious. 

She taught us to be so comfortable with any strangeness that is truly us that we can’t help but want you to be comfortable, too. Rather than feel compelled to shove our difference in your face with anger or “I dare you to say something” attitude, we live and love and are ourselves comfortably.

I’ll admit I learned the value of fitting in and learning to care about the expectations of others a little bit later–and it’s true there is value there, too. With a willingness to hear the views of the many and to consider the comfort of the masses I have been able to teach my loved ones to keep an open mind and a flexible nature. Also, we’ve discovered tips and tricks for sharing our own passions more clearly and to a bigger audience. That is a lovely thing!

So, I learned caring about discovering my unique self and encouraging those I love to discover their unique selves, first. Later I learned to care also about your unique needs and ideas.

mom and son take a selfie

The two go well together, most of the time. And when I struggle to see how the pieces fit – our unique selves and your unique needs and ideas– I’ll always choose accepting myself and my loved ones first, over worrying about you. Not only because myself and my loved ones are more my responsibility, but because I am unable to guess correctly the expectations of you, a kindly stranger staring as my son purses his lips and makes animal sounds in the produce section. Also, I believe you have the ability to help yourself and need less from me than my loved ones do.

I see you staring as my son towers over me and squishes my cheeks, and I respond in my own way. I hope you’re open to my style of communication and are truly curious rather than assumptive. Communication – every kind of communication–is understood best that way.

I learned exploring unique and personal passions first, and finding how they fit with society later.

Want to know a secret? I think, honestly, that’s the best order.


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