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Why I Thank the Man Who Sneered as My Son Had a Meltdown at Costco

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To the senior citizen at Costco who stared at my family,

I want to thank you for making my daughter a better person.

I’m sure you’ve seen the world and truly experienced life. I’m sure you have a family; I saw you have a spouse. When you turned around, stopped and stared at my autistic son (E, who’s 4 years old) and my family with that look of disgust and contempt, you opened up an unparalleled opportunity for discussion, the true and utter ignorance in harsh judgment.

We’ve discussed that people hate for the wrong reasons, and often for no reason at all, thanks to my deceased stepfather, a Holocaust survivor. But we’ve never discussed how people can show disgust and judgment without knowing the situation. Certainly, this momentary encounter was not how I planned to discuss this with her, but your ignorant judgment of my 4-year-old child as he melted down within the giant, echoing metal walls of Costco was exactly the push I needed. My response to your contempt was exactly what Elle needed to witness: a giant dose of reality.

Your unkind, horrifying sneer changed my daughter’s feelings about judging others completely. It was a lightbulb moment I hoped for as I was raised in a world of acceptance and tolerance. My daughter lives in a different world, a different country, in fact.

In case you don’t recall, our conversation went like this:

You: Look of hostility, contempt and revulsion as you ever so gently shake your head…

Me (raising my voice because you are far away): “My son is very upset and he’s autistic, there’s no need to stare.”

You pause as we continue through the aisle toward you. Elle, my 11-year-old daughter, is at my side begging me to be silent.

Elle (whispering): “Mom, it’s OK, he didn’t mean it, just keep going, shhhh.”

Me (flatly, not with the seething rage I was feeling inside): “You need not stare, my son is autistic and he desperately wants to leave here.”

You: “Oh uh, I uh, I just thought someone was hurt, I uh. Sorry.”

Me: “Of course.”

Elle breathes out.

We moved forward, Elle and I, and we discussed exactly why it was so important to speak up. I believe responding to the contempt, to the judgment is one basic way we can create a society of acceptance. I asked her if she thought the next time you witnessed a child melting down or experiencing overstimulation, would you again jump to that conclusion?

Elle’s response: “I think so, he was a jerk.”

Me: “If the next person were as candid as I was, would he react like a jerk again?”

Elle: “Probably not.”

We discussed it later as a family, spreading tiny seeds of comprehension and helping them to grow. My son got it, too!

It was wrong for you to look at us that way, to make assumptions about my son’s behavior, to think the absolute worst of us.

Your resignation, your immediate change in demeanor when confronted, also helped us out, because my daughter learned that standing up to people making harsh judgment calls in a respectful, non-hostile way — regardless of how hurt or angry you are — can be effective. I hope this stays with her for life.

You should know I felt furious leaving Costco. We returned to our car, meeting my husband there, and I sobbed from hurt, from the lack of control I feel when my sweet boy feels so terrified, and from confronting your palpable anger with a required calm.

Today, I revel in your response. I celebrate the opportunity to plant these seeds in the beautiful, loving, accepting minds of my older children.

I wrote this note to simply say thank you and to remind others that it’s OK to go out. It’s OK to confront people who stare in a calm way and help them to learn. It’s OK not to pass judgment, to examine the circumstances and see if we can learn, help, or most importantly, encourage change.

Faith D

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Originally published: June 26, 2015
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