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When a Grocery Store Bagger Made the Wrong Comment About My Son's Autism

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I went to the grocery store this evening. It was one of those trips without a shopping list, so I was walking up and down the aisles of Publix getting things I forgot the first time I went down the aisle. I finally got everything I needed, and of course I picked the line with the coupon issues. My son Brandon made a ton of noise and some of his quirky body movements as we waited our turn. He was happy though, which was all I could ask for in that situation.

As the cashier was ringing me up, the bagger asked Brandon if he would like a sticker. Brandon isn’t able to respond to something like that, so I helped him out. I said, “He would love a sticker.” The bagger looked a little puzzled, so I explained that Brandon has autism and isn’t able to speak well enough to say he would like one, but I knew he would still love one. I then realized the bagger looked puzzled because he was looking for the stickers. He replied, “I’m sorry.” So I said brightly, “Oh, are you out of stickers?” He said, “No, they’re right here.” My face fell as it hit me he was saying sorry my son has autism.

I could have gone off on him. I wanted to. I could have shamed him by saying, “I’m not sorry about my son. Don’t say you’re sorry. My son is fearfully and wonderfully made, and my son is nothing to apologize for.”

But I didn’t.

I just smiled and said thank you for the sticker.

He asked if I would like help out to my car, and I told him I would. He then asked me if my son would be OK with him pushing the cart. It was very thoughtful of him to consider this might upset Brandon. I told him it would be fine and I appreciated him considering that. I started thinking I was kind of glad I didn’t go off on him.

Walking out to the car, this bagger told my son to steer him in the right direction of the car. (We were in one of those kid’s car carts.) As he put everything in my trunk, I started buckling Brandon in his carseat. Brandon was already in the car and couldn’t really see him anymore, but the young man called out, “Bye Brandon!” with a huge grin on his face and his hand waving in the air.

My head darted up in surprise, and I smiled at him as he walked the cart back into the store. My eyes immediately welled up with tears at this awkward goodbye from the grocery store bagger who had just hurt my feelings minutes before.

Consider this: if I had attacked this young man for his “I’m sorry” comment, it is clear it would have crushed him. He would have gone home that night feeling awful and would probably vow to himself to shy away from any other autism families he meets – for nothing could feel worse than upsetting a mother like that, and he wouldn’t want to get publicly shamed again. Many special needs parents get their feelings hurt and are quick to blast someone for a thoughtless comment. (And I am not talking about those cruel people who deliberately say unkind things. Those people are a totally different story – I’ll go off on those folks all day long.) The other thing special needs parents may do is not say anything, then lay awake half the night seething about the comment and what we wish we had said.  

Before you had a child with special needs, did you know the perfect thing to say to a special needs parent? You probably didn’t. To be perfectly honest, I still don’t. I have several friends who have children with special needs, and since children are so different (especially those with autism), I’m sure I have said the wrong things. My closest friends and even my own family have hurt my feelings with comments they have made. We need to have grace with people we come across so we can educate them as best we can in those fleeting moments. This young man at Publix didn’t know what to say. He said the wrong thing, and it’s very likely he had no idea he had done so. Giving him grace in that moment allowed me to see what a kind heart he has and the effort he made to connect with this little boy he just met.

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Originally published: August 1, 2016
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