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What You Miss When You Call a Child With Autism a 'Public Nuisance'

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“You have to stop hitting your head on the walls. If you do, they’re going to make us move,” I said, crying, trying to help my son calm down, desperate and not knowing what to do.

He was 8 and having meltdowns every night after school.

We had already received complaints from our neighbor in the complex. We received notes from the landlord with cease-and-desist orders, threatening eviction if we didn’t get the noise under control.

I was terrified. I was ashamed. I was sure it was my poor mothering causing this. And I was sure I was the only one.

Two years and an autism diagnosis later, we were living in a home instead of an apartment. The neighbors were further away now, and we weren’t sharing any walls.

But my son’s meltdowns were much more violent. Holes in walls, windows smashed, books thrown out the window onto the front yard – I was still terrified. What if they call the police? What if the landlord isn’t as understanding as he seems to be? What if my son continues to escalate?

The behavior began to seep into our public lives, too, outside of the bashed-in, busted-up walls of our own home.

Throwing a board game in Target, hitting a little old lady and turning my blood to ice. Hitting one of his friends in the head because he was being too loud in the pool. Kicking and denting our car while we waited for the meltdown to pass on the side of the road. Breaking our windshield in front of his 9-year-old friend. Hitting me, kicking me, pulling my hair, biting me – every time I tried to restrain him and keep him from damaging property, or worse, hurting someone else.

I felt frantic all the time. I carried his diagnosis papers with me, prepared to show them to a police officer or security guard, all the time. I cried in pure exhaustion and desperation. I worried my friends would stop bringing their children around us, and that we would be alone, all the time. And I searched for an answer, for relief, for anything that might bring some level of help.

Last year, neighbors of a child with autism filed a lawsuit alleging that the boy was a “public nuisance” and that his behavior was having a “chilling effect” on the local real estate market. According to ABC7 News, “the suit claims the couple did not do enough to prevent their son, who has autism, from assaulting their children, as well as other people in the neighborhood.” Not only was the lawsuit filed, but a Santa Clara County Superior Court judge issued a preliminary injunction against the parents to ensure their son doesn’t strike, assault or batter anyone in the neighborhood or their personal propertyThe parents, after seven years in their home and neighborhood, moved.

There is so much media lately around autism awareness. And I think it’s good. I think it’s really good.

And I think what I want more awareness of is this –

Behavior, for any child is communication.

Behavior for a child with autism who has trouble communicating at all might be his only form of communication.

The behaviors this judge issued an injunction against, that this judge required the parents to shut down, are an element of autism itself.

Assuming that a parent could simply “parent better” and stop it makes me feel tired, sad, desperate and angry.

Because no one wants to ensure their child doesn’t alienate the neighborhood, hurt other children or sit on cats more than the ones who love him. No one is working harder to find help, seek therapy, investigate options, avoid play dates, stay alert at the park and physically intervene when necessary than the momma who is terrified for her child.

This little boy has autism.

My son has autism.

It affects almost everything we do and every decision we make.

There is nothing we can do to change that simple fact, nor would we.

Because the behaviors these neighbors and that judge are litigating against are only a part of what autism is in our families. The tough part.

If you only focus on the behavior, you miss so much more.

My son has autism.

He has been violent and destructive at times, yes.

He also has been a good friend, always willing to help someone when they need it.

He has been a teacher, to his younger brother, to his friends, to me.

He has been recognized as a genius, able to comprehend advanced, complex subjects as if they should be obvious to us all.

He loves well and with abandon.

He shows me every single day what courage looks like.

He is loving, brave, strong and smart, and his behavior can be out of control sometimes.

He is all of these things.

He is a human being. Not a monster. Not a nuisance. Not a lawsuit.

I believe it is the humanity of autism that was lost in this neighborhood.

And that is a loss for us all.

Follow this journey on Not the Former Things.

Originally published: September 29, 2015
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