There we were, my son and I, minding our own business, waiting patiently for the traffic light to turn from red to green. It was a beautiful, sunny fall morning and I was feeling extremely grateful that John was not crying or upset, as he often is, on our drive toward his autism school. He was calm, I was calm, and we were both lost in thought as we gazed at the view of downtown from our car windows. I glanced to my right at a large white SUV and noticed that the driver, a middle-aged mom like myself, was pointing at my son and laughing. Then I watched her lips move as she said something to the little girl, maybe nine years old - presumably her daughter - sitting next to her in the passenger's seat. The daughter then practically crawled onto her mother's lap in order to get a better view. There they were, two faces in the window, both laughing and pointing at John. I quickly maneuvered the rearview mirror in order to get a better look at him in the backseat, thinking to myself, What? Is he suddenly naked? Is he standing on his head? Is his hair on fire? Nope, none of those things. Rather, John was simply sitting peacefully, looking intently outside his window (thankfully in the other direction); he held both hands up near the sides of his face with his fingers splayed, and he was rocking slightly back and forth. Was it funny? Not at all. Was it different? Well, yeah, I guess maybe it was.
I am, by nature, notoriously slow to anger. I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt, perhaps far more frequently than I should. So as the light changed and the SUV pulled away, I was actually more baffled than anything else. (It didn't help that I hadn't yet maxed out my caffeine intake for the day.) But the more I thought about it, the madder - and sadder - I got. I tried to recreate in my mind the conversation that would have had to have taken place inside that white SUV. Did the mother actually say to the little girl, "Oh honey, look, you've gotta see this! Look what this kid is doing! There has to be something really wrong with him!" Could a conversation like that have actually taken place in this day and age? Obviously, I have no idea. But I have a hard time conjuring up what else might have been discussed in order to bring about the behavior that I know I saw.
So by that afternoon, after a lot of thinking (and a whole lot more coffee), I was pretty enraged and disgusted with the SUV mom. I even had a few of those George Costanza moments, you know the Seinfeld episode in which George doesn't think of an appropriate comeback until far too long after the fact (as in his famous, "The jerk store called...they're running out of you!"). The message I wanted to go back and tell that woman was twofold: One, if you've been a parent for more than a year or two, you ought to be familiar with the concept of the 'teaching moment' - how nearly every moment with a child is a teaching moment, and lady, you just really blew it; in case you've missed the news over the past few years, children as young as ten and eleven are killing themselves as a result of being mocked and ridiculed and bullied by other kids. And what you just did at that stoplight - in essence, invite and encourage your own child to laugh and make fun of another child who appears different - is exactly what kids around the country are doing to other kids, and those emotionally traumatized kids quite often go on to commit suicide. Suicide, in ten and eleven year olds. Do you really want to be a party to that? Is that really what you want to teach your child?
And the second thing I wanted to tell her is this: If your daughter is healthy and thriving, is functioning well enough for the two of you to converse and goof around together during a car ride, then lady, count your lucky stars. If your daughter managed to escape the effects of modern medicine's toxic assault on infants and small children with the overuse of vaccines and medications, if she came out of that unscathed and neurologically intact, then you are one very fortunate parent. Because kids like mine didn't make it out of that assault. Kids like mine - and there are lots of them - are chronically ill, allergic, autistic, and neurologically damaged as a direct result, and parents like me would kill to be in your shoes.
If I could turn back time and undo the medical damage done to my child, turn him back into a healthy child who could talk and play and joke around and learn things naturally, I hope to God I would utilize the time we shared on car rides to engage in joyful, constructive, compassionate conversations. I most certainly hope I would not, instead, use that time together to seek out and mock others who were less fortunate.
We weren't bothering anyone at that stoplight. We were quiet, our windows were rolled up, you'd barely even notice we were there. And that's pretty much how we live our life with John's autism. We go out of our way to make sure that his behavior does not infringe upon other people's ability to enjoy themselves in public places. We work hard to teach him how to properly behave in the community and for the most part, things go fairly smoothly. And if we can't control his behavior or if he gets too loud, we always choose to leave rather than disturb others. (Or as I somewhat sarcastically said to another autism mom, "We've left more places than we've ever gone to.") We don't even attempt to go to places where silence and impeccable behavior are expected. Like so many families with special needs children do, we adapt our adventures and activities and expectations so that we may least disrupt the lives of others. So please, for God's sake, just allow us to sit quietly at a stoplight without being ridiculed.
Donna Laken is the mother of a twelve year old son with autism.