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When a Stranger’s Question About My Son Brought Tears to My Eyes

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So last week, Romi and I went to grab some stuff — cough-cough, five boxes of frozen pizza with spicy olive oil, cough — at Trader Joe’s.

The Portland store — besides having a microscopic parking lot that brings on the anxiety of musical chairs from my preschool days — is flanked to the left by a loading dock, complete with a gigantic roll off dumpster that you can actually see inside. This delights Roman, and he runs ahead.

Trailing by a few steps, I see him excitedly jumping, finger pinching, then (sh*t!) start talking to a stranger. Lest you forget, the grocery store is where all the most “helpful” strangers gather to pass judgment on your ill-behaved child and on your inferior parenting skills. I steel myself.

Roman’s unwitting victim is a middle-aged woman, caught mid-step, ensnared in Romi’s world of hydraulics, construction vehicles, conveyor belts and trash. Romi touches her arm, talks rapidly about an orange garbage truck, which I know he desperately wants for Christmas, even though he already has two green ones. But she has no context and zero idea what he’s saying.

I see her familiar, scanning head turn as she wonders, “Is this child possibly here alone?” A weak smile on my face, I step in, catch her eye and nod, wordlessly reassuring her that I’m here — she can go. Instead of leaving though, she lingers, listening to Roman. My hand on Roman’s shoulder, I quickly say, “Sorry, autism,” feeling like a traitor for slapping a label on him like that. But here again, I’m expecting her to make her escape, because this is where most people reply with a weird “that’s OK” as if it weren’t and lumber off to their more normal lives.

Instead, she looks right at me, or through me, it seems, and asks, “How can I help?” Bewildered, I stare back. “Pardon me?” She slows her speech, kindly repeating, “What can I do now to help him?”

Tears immediately well up in my eyes, and I look down at Roman to hide my emotion. “Honestly,” I say, “I’m not sure. No one has ever asked me that.” Incredulous, she responds, “Really?” Um. Yes. 12 years of yes.

Weightless, my self-consciousness lifted, we form a little protective barrier around Roman. Both standing there, me with my arm around my little guy, listening to his scripts and animated dumpster speech. When he starts to slow down, I smile and say, “Hey, Romi, let’s go get a cart so we can get our shopping done.”

Trance broken, I awkwardly say to the lady, “Well … thank you.” And I hustle Roman away before my tears drop. Because even though this whole episode lasted no more than a minute, Roman is settled. His humanity validated by the undivided attention of a stranger, he’s ready to go get some pizza. Right after mama visits the chocolate aisle.

This post originally appeared on Kid Gigawatt.

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Originally published: May 13, 2015
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