Dear Judgmental Diner,
You probably don’t remember me or my family. Your judgment of us was swift and matter-of-fact. “We will never let our kids zone out on electronics while we have a family meal,” you declared to your husband as you nodded our direction. That was that. You would never allow your future, hypothetical children to be as inconsiderate and rude as mine. I’m sure you went on about your day without a second thought about the kid zoning out on the phone at brunch.
And I get it. I do. I have said similar things in the past, back when I also had future hypothetical children. Back before I had present, real children. Back before I started to notice that one of those children was a little bit different than most kids his age. Back before the doctor mentioned the big, scary word that starts with an A.
You see, it’s easy to make judgments when you are not really in the situation, because all you see is a kid zoning out on a phone. But that’s not what I see. When you are the parent of a child with autism, reality negates all of your pre-kids assumptions.
You see a kid zoning out on a phone. I see a kid who this morning was spinning himself up in the curtains, as he so often does now, to avoid putting on his clothes. This kid likes to be naked. He finds clothes very uncomfortable and tight, even when they are two sizes too big. Wearing a soft cotton T-shirt can sometimes feel like wearing a straightjacket. So, while you see a kid zoning out, I see a kid with his clothes on.
You see a kid ignoring his family and playing games. I see a kid whose mom dragged him to a local park this morning for family pictures that he didn’t want to do. Getting ready for pictures, that kid found a tall bench made of a tree branch that he could climb and jump off of again and again, hoping those few intermittent seconds of free fall could help him forget about his tight shirt. But he couldn’t. He had to sit still, smile, and make eye contact, which is not very comfortable or exciting. But he did it. So, while you see a kid ignoring his parents, I see a kid who cooperated with family pictures for a whole hour.
You see a kid ignoring the food on his plate and watching videos. I see a kid who waited patiently for 30 minutes to be seated at a cramped table and wait for his food, only to be disappointed and unable to eat because the food on his plate was linked sausage instead of sausage patties. Could he eat it? Sure. Does it taste the same? Pretty much. But it’s new, and it’s scary, and it might taste funny. So he won’t eat it. He will be hungry until we get home to his familiar food that tastes, smells, and looks like he is used to. So, while you see a kid who is not eating, I see a kid who is very hungry and waiting to eat at home.
You see a kid ignoring all social interaction at the table. I see a kid who is doing a great job holding it together and not melting down. Just one of these things today could have made for a really bad day for this little guy. But all of them together? That could have sent him into a full-scale nuclear meltdown. But it didn’t; he is holding it together. You know why he is holding it together? Because those brightly colored characters in the videos on that phone he is so focused on are just enough stimulation that he can “zone out” and not think about all those other things that are bothering him — the T-shirt that is so tight it could choke him, the energy building up inside of him just waiting to explode, that rumbling in his hungry tummy so noisy you could likely hear it at the next table.
You see a kid who is ignoring everything else, and I do too, but I also see that everything else is so overwhelming for that kid this morning, that it’s okay for him to block it all out and concentrate on that tiny 3-inch screen to make it through a family brunch.
So, Ms. Diner, please remember next time you see a kid zoned out on electronics during a family meal that, although your future, hypothetical children may be perfect, that kid at the next table may just be doing an awesome job at not having a nuclear meltdown and that zoning out is all he can do to keep it together.
That Kid’s Proud Mother