"Come on, Calvin. Let's go away from the naughty boy." The woman narrowed her eyes at me, took her little boy by the hand, and stomped off.
The naughty boy she was talking about was my son. Tommy.
I had taken him to the park, something that I almost dreaded to do, because I knew it would nearly always inevitably end with someone tugging their child away from mine. My son has autism, so being social never came easily for him. When he was tiny, he'd rush over and squeeze the arm of whoever was crying because he couldn't stand to hear the wails. When he got older and began to be able to express his feelings, he told me honestly, "It felt like glass was going across my brain whenever a kid would cry. I was trying to get them to stop, but didn't know how to tell them to stop."
Obviously parents who don't understand the world of autism wouldn't understand why another child was racing over in a panic, grasping onto their child's wrist. Tommy would do this while tensing up, causing his face to shake briefly as if he were cold. But he wasn't cold. He was in pain. The crying from that other child was causing him pain.
Other parents wouldn't get it though. They'd just see a kid touching theirs and would hurry away before I could explain.
"He doesn't mean it to be cruel," I'd say feebly to their retreating backs. "He has autism."
But it wouldn't matter. My kid was the one to avoid. If we showed up to the park and saw parents who had encountered my son before, they'd quickly leave. If they were with friends, they'd mutter something and all eyes would turn towards us before everyone gathered their belongings and children and swiftly made their exit.
It can be lonely having a child with autism. A lot of people don't understand. They would simply refer to my kid as a brat when he'd wail over a tag against his back. They'd whisper and giggle when my son would walk back and forth, back and forth in front of the slide. I'd say, "He's stimming," but I'd be met with a blank look. One lady even bluntly answered, "Whatever it is, it looks weird."
It got to the point where I rarely would bring Tommy to the park. Oh sure, I had friends who understood he had autism, but even they would get annoyed when Tommy would squeeze their child's arm if they dared to cry in their presence. Excuses would be made.
"Maybe come over without Tommy sometime so we can hang out? Just us?"
"Well, my son is sort of afraid of yours..."
"Um, could you come get your son? There's a bunch of boys over here and yours won't stop crying."
I'd like to say things got better, but really, my son always was and always will be socially awkward. He did have another friend on the spectrum. They'd get together, stim, and play in their own corners. But then we moved. Tommy did find some other people who didn't mind his quirks, but then they moved. Now, as a teenager, he doesn't really hang out with his peers. He's not lonely though. No, he communicates while playing video games. When he does this, the people on the other end don't see him rocking back and forth.
Sometimes I take my neurotypical daughter to a larger park in the area. We were there once and I saw a tiny boy walking back and forth, back and forth. The mom was trying to get him to go down the slide. I could see other mothers flicking looks in her direction. I remembered those looks. And so I said to the mom, "Your son is adorable," because he was, with brown hair and brown eyes that were fixated on the corner of the play structure.
She gave me a harried expression. The expression of a parent with autism. We're constantly trying to soothe our kids and keep them comfortable in a world that can be overstimulating.
"Thanks," she said. "He won't go down the slide. He's....well, it's something called..."
"Stimming," I cut in, and she gave me a grateful look. Her shoulders instantly relaxed. She knew I was one of her people. She knew I got it. She wouldn't see any raised eyebrows from me. She wouldn't see judgement.
We smiled, wishing that the rest of the world could be just as understanding.
Maybe someday they will be. Please remember, if you see a child at the park doing something that you think is unusual, wait before you judge. Remind the mom that she's not alone.
Because we're all just trying to do our best.