In Their Own Words –That Shiver of Recognition
This “In Their Own Words” essay is written by Glen Finland. Glen is the author of Next Stop, a memoir about raising her son, who has autism, to adulthood and learning to let go, forthcoming from Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam in early 2011.
First, I note the impatience in the father’s voice as he cautions his son to slow the grocery cart down in the dog food aisle. The maybe seven-year-old looks just like his dad in a tee-shirt and shorts, but he moves with an awkward, unfocused gait.
“Nolan!” the dad shouts. “Stop right there and look at me. Look at dad. Nolan!” Too late – bang! Staring down at his flip-flops, Nolan has bumped his empty cart into mine. No damage done, but I pick up on the faraway look in the child’s eyes and the sound of fatigue in his dad’s pleading, “Nolan! Look at dad, Nolan!”
“No worries,” I say to the father, winking at Nolan and giving them both a big, goofy smile. Nolan doesn’t smile back at me, but I can see he’s paying attention now, and as I push on down the aisle I feel a shiver of recognition. I know that look on Nolan’s face and I get the helplessness in the father’s voice.
I remember other trips to the grocery store that went awry. I remember the condescending looks from others, when I would repeat myself endlessly to get my own child to move away from wherever he had gotten himself stuck. I want to tell Nolan’s dad that it’s okay for his kid to tap the cart into mine, because I could see his boy had been enjoying hearing his flip-flops slide across the cool, clean floor. I want to tell Nolan’s dad that he’s doing a good job today, taking his son on an errand, just the two of them; maybe giving mom a rare break.
But I say nothing. Even though my autism radar has kicked in full force, it would have been presumptious of me to make a quick diagnosis of Nolan’s abilities. I don’t dare tell Nolan’s dad that, “I’ve got a grown-up Nolan at home and believe me, you’re doing a good job, dad.” Instead I bite my tongue and zip around the corner to the lightbulb display.
Still, I wanted badly to pat Dear Old Dad on the back, offer a little solidarity on the autism battlefront, and let him know his hard work will pay off down the road. But I do not cross that privacy line.
And this is how autism works to isolate us further as parents. With the spectrum being so broad, it often manifests itself as a hidden disability which creates its own sort of secret society for the families who are in it for life. The bright side is the hidden gift of an ever-growing organization like Autism Speaks, a place where the right to being a different sort of human is recognized, valued, and honored.
Meanwhile back in the lightbulb section, I find the familiar in an unexpected place once again. Here comes Nolan, bearing down on me with his grocery cart a second time, only this time he’s staring at me with a big smile on his face. His dad follows close behind him with his palms turned up. Then he recognizes me and laughs.
“Look out, dad,” I let myself say, “the fun is just beginning.”
“In Their Own Words” is a series within the Autism Speaks blog which shares the voices of people who have autism, as well as their loved ones. If you have a story you wish to share about your personal experience with autism, please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. Autism Speaks reserves the right to edit contributions for space, style and content. Because of the volume of submissions, not all can be published on the site.