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4 Ways We Respond When Strangers Stare at Our Son

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People stare. They just do. Ethan hops, hits his chest, claps loudly, squeals, squeaks, moans, says strange words and usually has his iPad playing a movie loudly while he holds it to his ear.

It used to really bother me to be stared at all the time. I assumed people were irritated by Ethan. I assumed they probably thought I was a bad parent with a brat for a child. I would leave public places feeling anxious, overwhelmed, stressed, depressed and angry.

Over the years, I’ve come to a few conclusions. People want to be told what to think, they want to be shown how to interact and how to react to Ethan. We’ve developed a few habits that make interacting with the rest of the world easier.

1. We wear autism shirts. I know it sounds cheesy but when they have it pointed out clearly in big letters, the reaction from strangers is overwhelmingly more positive, patient and kind.

2. We make eye contact and smile. It helps others see we know they are staring and we have feelings.

3. We make jokes. Like when he walks right up to your basket and grabs the Oreos, we will say something like, “Get the milk, too!” followed by a brief explanation, “This is Ethan. He has autism. He is still learning about personal space. Sorry about that. Thank you for being patient.”

4. We try to utilize and see interactions as teaching moments. When kids stare, I might say something like, “This is Ethan. He has autism. He is making some really silly noises, isn’t he? Have you ever met somebody with autism?” Then I explain it to them briefly and tell them something “cool” about Ethan and how he uses his iPad, and most of the time, they come to view Ethan as a pretty cool dude.

I’ve come to see that people stare at me as much as they stare at him and it’s my job to lead by example. Instead of ducking and hiding, I take the opportunity to hold my head high, walk with confidence and show love and affection.

I’m not ashamed of my child. I’m not going to hide him from the world or avoid going places. If the world is ever going to be aware of autism or better yet, accept autistic individuals, they have to be given opportunities to interact with them.

A version of this post originally appeared on Autism Strong.

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Originally published: May 1, 2015
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