We were at the beach where my son Evan kept vacillating between trying hard to be extraordinarily good and having a hard time controlling his frustration.
He chose the extraordinarily good when he decided to approach a boy about his age and his entire extended family. “Can you please stop making those siren noises? It really bothers me,” I heard him say from across the sand.
My son, who is autistic, proudly ran back to me to announce what he did. Evan also told me the kid hit his inner tube after he asked him to stop making the noises. I knew he wasn’t lying, and I was surprised nobody said anything to this boy about hitting. I was especially annoyed when I heard the grandmother loudly proclaim, “What was that all about?”
I couldn’t understand what was so confusing about a kid asking another kid to stop making a noise that scared him?
I waited until Evan was out of earshot so that I could tell her exactly “what that was all about.”
They saw me approaching and I watched grandma and some other family members tense up. I never like to have these conversations, and I especially don’t like to have them in front of Evan because I don’t ever want him to use his autism as an excuse. He wouldn’t understand the difference between an excuse and an explanation. This family clearly needed an explanation because explaining autism can hopefully help raise awareness and acceptance.
I think I was also still pretty fired up over a conversation I had with another autism mom two days before. She and her son don’t ever go out because the harsh comments and stares from others are hard on her. I told her that’s exactly why she should get out and suggested that she and a group of moms and their kids head to the playground to raise autism awareness. Thinking of her and her son, I — a person who despises confrontation — was surprisingly calm as I walked over to the family at the beach.
“My son has autism and certain noises really bother him,” I said. I was prepared to say more, but they interrupted me.
“He has autism too,” someone said. “He’s mostly nonverbal, and he likes to make that sound.”
I looked down at the boy who was sitting in a beach chair, his face obstructed by a wide-brim sunhat, and I saw a 10-year-old boy I would soon learn was named Connor.
His mom and I high-fived each other because I guess that’s what you do when you meet a stranger who understands your unique experiences raising a child who doesn’t fit neatly into a box. Among all the moms of kids splashing in the water and digging in the sand, we knew we understood each other more than any other parent at the lake that day.
We talked briefly, trading stats on our kids like they were professional baseball players. Instead of discussing batting averages, we talked about things like verbal versus nonverbal and our kids’ sensory triggers. She smiled and said she knew something was up with Evan when he approached them (even if grandma’s A-dar wasn’t beeping).
I told her what a big deal it was that Evan didn’t just come over and start yelling at her son for making those noises, and that this was the first time I’ve seen him appropriately advocate for himself.
But as we both knew, autism moms don’t have much time to chat when their kids are around. Our conversation lasted less than a minute before Evan required my attention.
We said a quick goodbye, and Evan and I had a little talk about autism too. I told him that Connor also has autism and that he makes those noises because it makes him happy or it helps him feel better. I told him that Connor, who is the same age as he, may have hit his inner tube because he doesn’t have words and was probably upset that someone told him to stop doing something that was making him happy.
I think Evan liked meeting someone new with autism, because when we got home, he kept saying things like “autism is awesome” and “I love autism and special needs and disabilities.”
I never expected the conversation to go the way it did. I was prepared to unleash the wrath of a mama bear on this family and then get a half-hearted apology. Instead, I met a member of my tribe.
Evan may say he loves autism. I love that autism is everywhere because it makes it easier to find understanding in a world that can be cruel and judgmental.
It was nice to meet you today, Connor’s mom. I’m so glad you were there to understand exactly what was going on and what a big deal it was for Evan to be the self-advocate he was. I hope that the next time someone approaches you about Connor’s noises that your interaction goes as well as ours did today.