I’m not proud of the way I behaved. Throwing food, particularly in public, is never appropriate. But before you judge me too harshly, hear me out.
My son is on the autism spectrum. He has behavioral challenges stemming from his disability. Granted, he may not have the best example (a mom who throws food, for a start), but he does have neurological differences that make a simple trip to the grocery store a challenge.
These differences are on full display every Sunday when I take my two sons – my six-year-old on the spectrum and my three-year-old – to Whole Foods for breakfast. I do this to give both boys practice on how to act in public. Also, the scrambled eggs at the Whole Foods breakfast bar are the only ones my older son will eat.
In the car, we go over the ground rules: Calm voices. Safe hands. Stick together. But the moment we enter the store, these reminders seem to fly out the automatic glass doors along with the rush of indoor air.
Something about the Whole Foods environment sets my son off. Maybe it’s the bright lights or the high ceilings or the shelves jam-packed with kaleidoscopic boxes. Kids on the spectrum are more reactive to sensory input, and my son’s no exception.
Right away, his body revs up. His feet move faster. His limbs wing out in all directions. He makes loud, random noises that echo throughout the store.
We get looks. They’re not the same, sympathetic kind I used to get when my son was a toddler running loose through the aisles or having a meltdown in the produce department. As my son’s grown-up, social expectations of him have changed even though his condition remains the same.
These looks say one thing: Get your kid under control.
What these onlookers don’t know is how much of my life is devoted to just that. It’s practically a full-time job involving therapy appointments, behavioral plans, token systems, and sticker charts all in an effort to control my son or, more accurately, teach him to control himself.
Maybe it was the feeling of being unfairly judged that primed my reaction that morning. Or maybe, after living so long with the day-to-day challenges of raising a child on the spectrum, I was just tired, fed-up and ready to throw something.
It happened at the oatmeal bar.
I supervised while my son attempted to serve himself. His body was excitable as usual. He glopped oatmeal into his bowl and then hovered over the toppings selection, hopping in place.
I was aware of a man standing too close behind us, huffing impatiently. With a quick glance over my shoulder I saw that he was tall with a moustache and a red, menacing face. He spoke directly to my son.
“Slow down,” he scolded.
I don’t care for men with moustaches, but men who use their size and gender to intimidate others are reprehensible to me. And no one, of any size or gender, speaks to my child in that tone.
“Don’t talk to my child like that,” I said.
“Stick it in your ear, Ma’am,” he replied.
He shoved his face a few inches from mine and spoke in slow motion, “Stick – It – In – Your – Ear–Ma’am.”
There are a dozen reasons why I should have walked away at that point. The man could have been armed and dangerous. At the very least, he was in a foul mood. My kids were watching. I repeated my own mantra back to myself: Calm voices! Safe hands! Stick together!
His lidless, to-go bowl of oatmeal sat perched on the edge of the bar. With a swift nudge, I knocked it onto the floor.
“Sorry,” I said. “I seem to have knocked over your oatmeal.”
“Security!” the man yelled. “I’ve been assaulted!”
He stomped off and then suddenly turned. He reached into my grocery cart and pulled out a large box of scrambled eggs and hurled it across the floor.
It takes a lot to silence my two boys, but this did it. All three of us stared at the man, mouths ajar. Uh oh, I thought, this is going badly. We need to get the hell out of here.
On our way out, I stopped by the cashier and gave her a slightly abridged version of events (“that man just threw eggs all over the floor”).
As I say, I’m not proud of myself. My actions sent the opposite message I’ve been working so hard to instill in my kids: that we are responsible for making good choices even when others don’t. Someone had to clean that mess up as I was too embarrassed and frightened to stick around and clean it up myself.
What I learned from this is that I need to take better care of myself – go to therapy or take up kickboxing but find a better way to deal with my stress.
The lesson for everyone else is this: give my son space to be himself. He’s loud and annoying. He knocks over the occasional display of loofahs and incense sticks. But he’s trying his best.
And so am I.