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Learning to Truly Listen to My Son on the Autism Spectrum


We pulled into the Hobby Lobby parking lot this afternoon with the intention of making a quick stop to pick out a gift for a birthday party tomorrow. I chose Hobby Lobby as Luke, my son with autism, has had at least a couple of relatively positive shopping trips there. Bigger, busier stores like Target and Walmart are too overwhelming for him and can result in a meltdown. Luke seemed content with the idea and had been in good spirits, so I felt confident we could quickly navigate the store without incident.

That was the plan. However, as we entered the building, he started to show signs of sensory overload.

Our conversation went something like this:

Me: “Luke, what’s wrong, Dude? You have been here before. Why are you upset?”

Luke: “Do you want to get a Jeep?”

Me: “I don’t think they sell Jeeps here, Bud, but we can check. Let’s go see if they have a Jeep.”

Luke: “Do you want to get a ride-on Jeep? See a Jeep. Get a Jeep!”

Me: “C’mon, let’s go look in the store. We just need one thing; it will be quick. You’ve been here before; I know you can do it.”

Despite his obvious agitation, Luke pushed through. We went to see if they had anything resembling a toy Jeep. They did not, but he did pick out a wooden truck to assemble and paint. And after a few minutes of debate, a gift was chosen for the party and we headed to the front of the store with relative ease.

However, when the checker could not locate the price on our selected gift, Luke started again.

“See a Jeep; ride on Jeep! Drive by a Jeep! A Jeep – A Jeep! See the Jeep!”

With a meltdown about to happen, I was relieved to get out of the store before it did. These things are much more comfortably managed in the privacy of the van than on full public display. I loaded the kids and hoped for the best as his perseveration on all things, “Jeep,” continued.

Finally, in exasperation, I cried,”Luke, they don’t sell Jeeps here! What do you want me to do?”

Drive by the Jeep?” He responded innocently.

A light suddenly clicked in my dense skull.

“Do you know where a Jeep is? Can you show me?”

“Yes, yes!”

“OK, which way do I go?”

“That way,” he said pointing ahead.

I slowly pulled out of my parking spot toward the north end of the Hobby Lobby parking lot, close to the store, and he quickly gestured to the right, “That way!”

I followed his directions until a couple of turns later, my other son called out, “I see it!”

Sure enough, parked toward the far end of the Cabela’s parking lot in one of the center aisles — a blue Jeep. I hoped that we could sneak up to the Jeep, drive by it, and maybe snap a picture for Luke to look at on the drive home.

As it came into full view, I saw that its owner had just returned and was starting up the engine. I rolled down my window and pulled up to the Jeep just as he put it into reverse. Thankfully, he noticed me unrolling the window and slowed to see what this middle-aged mom could possibly want from him.

“Could my son look at your Jeep? He is autistic and loves them.” As I asked this to a complete stranger, I felt a bit sheepish, but I will do pretty much anything to help my kid. Thankfully, he readily agreed, and I opened Luke’s back door to let him out, with the warning, “We are just looking. Don’t touch it!”

He bolted past me and was in the Jeep sitting next to its driver before I even finished the futile statement.

“He’s OK,” the driver quickly responded, “want me to take him for a ride around the parking lot?”

I eyed this random stranger, trying to judge his character based on our 10-second history together. He had a long beard and was dressed in a khaki work shirt with the name, “Matthew,” pinned to the right chest pocket — a Cabela’s employee, I guessed. I hesitated, but determined a man with nefarious intent would not likely be sporting his uniform with his name so boldly for me to identify. I hesitantly agreed, and he quickly popped the Jeep in reverse and took off, while Luke squealed with delight. He sped around the Cabela’s lot once, pulled back into his original parking spot, and put it into park. I asked if I could take a picture for Luke to remember his ride. He kindly obliged. Luke promptly turned the engine off for him and honked his horn.

“Good thing I got that horn fixed last week,” Matthew smiled. Luke jumped out as I shook hands with the stranger. The entire interaction was not more than five minutes.

Later that night, my husband asked Luke about his ride on a Jeep. Luke’s eyes lit up, and he just giggled his response.

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