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What the Boy in My Non-Verbal Son's Window Taught Me

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I remember Father’s Day was a warm one that year. We had a great time, but leaving the house for dinner felt like a chore. The family was all hot, tired, and just ready to feed our faces. Unfortunately, going to a Long Island restaurant on Father’s Day can often feel like a visit to the Department of Motor Vehicles on Awful Day. Between the waiting, crowding, and the noise, it can be a little overwhelming.

Scenes like that always make me worry about Lucas. While his older sister can endure these types of outings with only moderate whining, my son sometimes doesn’t adapt as well. As a non-verbal 7-year-old with autism, Lucas could get antsy and fidgety. Even with his iPad mini firmly in his grasp, he’d sometimes find himself overwhelmed with boredom. I try to keep that in mind and focus on making sure he’s content.

This day, he really held himself together. Sure, there was some aggravation over what turned into an unusually long wait, but we made the best out of it. Sitting nicely at the table with the view of Freeport’s waterfront behind him, Lucas was bouncy and happy, so I was too. We all were.

From over his shoulder, through the window, there was a slightly older boy seated at an outdoor table with his family. He was in my peripheral vision, but I could clearly see him jumping around in his seat and seemingly entertaining his mom and dad. I barely noticed them at first. After all, I was there to focus on feeding my face and having a good Father’s Day.

As the meal went on, I noticed the boy peering through the window at my son’s iPad. Again, it was just from the corner of my eye, so I didn’t get a clear view of it all, but I could see it happening. My dad senses spiked, but ultimately I ignored it and figured it was just what kids do. They’re curious. There was nothing wrong with that, and as long as no one bothered us, I wasn’t bothered. We were fine.

Lucas, I want to add, was being fantastic here. The food took forever to come out, but he displayed a great deal of patience. I couldn’t have been prouder. While my focus was on how wonderful my son was, though, my hazy side view peered over his head to the window behind him. That’s where, I was almost positive, I saw the boy look at him, laugh, and turn back to his family.

What the heck?

I felt that protective anger bubble up inside. I stared through the glass to see this kid quickly turn around to peer in our direction again with uproarious laughter and then turn back to his parents. Surprisingly, they were laughing too. I started to get even more enraged. What should I do? My immediate instinct was to smash the glass Hulk-style and barrel through like an action movie screaming, “What exactly is so funny?!”

Then again, I knew that would ruin Father’s Day, and probably my life, all for an offensive action that I wasn’t sure was even happening. To be honest, I was more confused by it than angry.

Keep in mind, this rarely happens to me. Strangers don’t comment on Lucas or cause conflict with him when I’m around, but I constantly struggle with not wanting to overreact to ambiguously minor moments. This felt like it might be one of those, so I took some time to process it and see if I should maybe relax.

I continued to glare through the window at this giggly family and was no longer hiding it. I hated how this happy-go-lucky group was all laughing together at my son for what they apparently saw as being “different.” What kind of family would do that? I just sat there staring at them. Giggling. Eating garlic bread. The dad putting the son on his lap and tickling him. The…

Wait. What?

Yeah. This kid was about 10 years old. Most children don’t do that in the middle of restaurants when they start hitting that age. I know my daughter didn’t. It seems like something more in tune with what Lucas would do.

For the first time the whole meal, I really looked at this boy and his family – not from an angry side gaze but from a direct stare. That’s when I saw it. He wasn’t making fun of Lucas. He was just like Lucas.

I don’t simply mean that he appeared to be non-verbal. He did, but he also shadowed my son’s mannerisms and behavior more than anyone I had ever seen. He laughed wildly as his parents bopped him up and down on their laps. I noticed his darting glances, casual shouts, and, for the first time, I saw his iPad. It was the same as the one my son has — complete with a matching carrying case.

That’s what they had been looking at. That’s why they had been laughing. The stares, laughs, and seemingly rude behavior was all just their reaction to seeing something they thought was similar about us, not different. I never saw it coming.

I’ve thought a lot about that day. I’ve gone over my false assumptions and paranoid approach to strangers. I imagined the worse and assumed it all was happening around me.

Yet, when I stopped imagining and focused — both figuratively and literally — on the people who really were around us, I saw that it wasn’t about our differences. I saw that these people were much more like us than I could have ever thought. From the side of my eye, I didn’t notice. I had to look directly to see who they really were. If I never did, my memory of that day would have been much different than the reality it truly was.

Poetic, right? I mean, this is some classic novel fodder for English classes to debate. Yet, it happened in real life. The symbolism was shockingly on point. It was as if someone was writing this out for me to read, rather than to live.

It was a reminder that while autism is unique and disabilities aren’t shared by the majority of people, they still exist outside of our home. With everyone repeating “if you meet one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism,” it can be easy to forget that. It can be easy to feel alone.

This boy and his family showed me that we weren’t as alone in the world as I felt at the start of that meal. There are plenty of people just like me, Lucas, and all of my loved ones. Sure, the differences can be overwhelming at first glance, but once you focus on who people truly are rather than hazy assumptions from the corner of your eye, you’ll see many more similarities than you ever did before. I know I did.

Originally published: October 28, 2020
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