Surviving Stoplight Stares
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.
After four years of recovery and mainstreaming last year we still will get looks.... no one wants to give my kid looks. I quote one of my favorite bands song "I'm Calm Like a 6omb". My son and all of your children, have had too much stolen from them and have been through too much for ANYONE to ridicule or make fun of them. All I can say is that I would have followed SUV Mom and given her a piece of my mind and told her what an pathetic example of a human being she was for her child.... that's right "I'm Calm like a 6omb". PS - I've been told that I posses the "Evil Eye" when I give someone a dirty look.... wish I could have given it to SUV Mom!!
Posted by: Son in Recovery | October 30, 2011 at 07:20 PM
Riley I have not forgotten you sad blog some years back about some drama queen little girl in your neighorhood laughing at Riley licking something.
I am sorry.
Making fun is from people who lack tack - it they that have the problem.
I am sure many makes fun of my son, but there is little to really make fun of.
At least we in the imediate family does not make fun of him.
Unlike some other family that I know of.
How bad is that?
My cousin visited me this spring. She has a 30 something year old aspergers son - but I have seen him little and they have never said too much about him - she has ignored the problem.
But my cousin brought her daughter and grandkids along too.
The daughter, a school teacher, sat out there on my back porch, and made the comment that her parents had a giant living up stairs over their heads.
Nether my cousin nor her husband laughed at that little joke, as a matter of fact, I saw great pain cross the husband's face.
Posted by: Benedetta | October 27, 2011 at 04:44 PM
An SUV or truck is the only practical vehicle for some of us autism parents to own if we want to navigate and traverse the snow packed roads to our homes. Sorry, a tiny Prius or other non-4 wheel drive vehicle is useless for families who live in the mountains and many northern rural areas. Your stereotyping of people who drive SUVs (which includes autism parents) is misguided and is an unhealthy prejudice.
Posted by: SUV Driver | October 27, 2011 at 10:35 AM
Oh Donna, THAT is ABSOLUTELY NOT true. Your son is supposed to be with you. YOU are the momma he needs and NO ONE else could ever fit that bill. Trust me, I have a short fuse and it seems to get shorter the older I get. Most of the time I don't see my short fuse as an asset.
You deserve the world Donna and I'm sorry that insensitive bitch made you feel that way.
Posted by: rileysmom | October 27, 2011 at 09:50 AM
Thank you, Jan. I absolutely loved your letter to the editor - it brought tears to my eyes. One of the nicest pieces on life with autism that I've ever read!
Posted by: Donna Laken | October 26, 2011 at 04:07 PM
nhokkanen, do you live in Mass or RI? That HAD TO BE my son, all 6'2" 300 lbs of him, rocking the car.
We swear he could propel it forward on his own given the chance.
Posted by: Jan Randall | October 26, 2011 at 03:57 PM
Taximom what is the lesson for us? Is that we are too sensitive? I don't believe that for a second.
I'd bet anything that Donna knew exactly what she saw from laughing woman and her daughter. I don't think that many of us go out of our way to look for people being hurtful. We have enough on our plates without adding that kind of stress to our lives.
Posted by: Jan Randall | October 26, 2011 at 03:55 PM
Donna your experience was so much like the one my son had at the local Y gym when a group of teen boys groaned as he walked in and said "oh no not him". It broke my heart and pissed me off so much so that I wrote a letter to the editor of the paper. It is so hard when someone is so cruel and you can't shake them and say to their face "thank your lucky stars." At least you know that you are not alone, that many of us Autism Moms have moments just like what you experienced and we do understand care.
Posted by: Jan Randall | October 26, 2011 at 03:48 PM
You have no idea how much I long to be someone more like YOU! The way I am doesn't serve anyone...least of all, my son.
Posted by: Donna Laken | October 26, 2011 at 03:44 PM
Donna, you are a much better person than I. I would have followed her to her destination and given her the "what for". Ignorance is NOT something I tolerate well, especially if it concerns my child. I have a very sharp tongue when it comes to someone poking fun at my kid. Kudos to you for not getting out of your car and handing the woman her ass (yes, I know, violence doesn't solve anything but it sure as hell makes me feel better to hit something!)
Posted by: rileysmom | October 26, 2011 at 01:05 PM
Thanks so much for chiming in, you guys. I was up alot during the night replaying the whole incident in my mind, trying to figure out how it could be interpreted as anything other than rude or cruel. All I can say is, you know (yes, instinctively) when you're being laughed at versus when you're being laughed with...and this was most definitely a 'being laughed at' situation. The way my son appeared was exactly how so many kids appear who I spot riding on special ed buses or the various vans around town transporting special needs kids (and adults) to and from group homes. The only difference was that we were in a regular car. He looked like a child with autism, and even if someone didn't know what autism is (is that even possible at this point in time?), it was still perfectly obvious that he had challenges/special needs/whatever. And I still find it really hard to believe that someone could openly mock that. Anyway, thanks so much for your support. I thought for awhile there that I was losing my mind!
Posted by: Donna Laken | October 26, 2011 at 07:38 AM
Thank you for sharing this incident. Last year I was driving behind a car with an adult male rocking in the passenger seat. The force of his movements made the entire vehicle rock while the driver sat nearly motionless.
I tried to figure out a way to telegraph solidarity to the driver and passenger, but couldn't think of anything other than a wave. Maybe we can come up with a positive hand gesture to support others sharing similar situations with misunderstood kids.
Posted by: nhokkanen | October 26, 2011 at 12:20 AM
I'm inclined to believe that Donna has it right. She was there and her instincts are telling her (even with her slow to anger nature) that the neighboring car was rude. They probably didn't think she would see them. It was interesting for me to see this article b/c this happens to me all the time in the car. My daughter is 18 and she "rocks" out constantly in the car and gets stared at, at stoplights all the time. I never know what to do. I've gotten to where I just stare at the driver....they need to see how uncomfortable it makes others feel to have their car stared into. I think our childrens rocking is obviously not typical and that most can tell something isn't right. Of course I could be wrong, but I am going to pray that this family becomes more compassionate.
Posted by: Kristi | October 25, 2011 at 11:03 PM
I was immediately reminded of one of my favorite quotes upon reading your piece. I hope in some small fashion, sharing this with you and others brings you some kind of peace of mind. "I don't think the worst thing that could happen to me is having a child with special needs. I think the worst thing would be to raise a child who is cruel to people with special needs." ~ Matthew Mickelson Butman
From a mom who has been there, XOX
Posted by: Lin | October 25, 2011 at 09:23 PM
i read this article and it made me very sad.I also have a son that dances and rocks.I think there is a big diffrence in both.I also know what you are saying about what you felt,after being laughed at and stared at also after awhile we can tell when they are being rude.
Posted by: kathy koenig | October 25, 2011 at 08:58 PM
We've experienced rudeness in public,more than once, where the parent in charge of another child makes us uncomfortable. We were baffled, too. And the shock waves hit throughout the day. I guess it's ignorance. I read Black Beauty as a kid and the term "only ignorance" stuck with me. Someone makes a mistake which hurts a horse and is someone else says, "dont be so hard on him, it was only ignorance..." but the groom who loves the horse says, "Only IGNORANCE?" and explains how damaging ignorance can be. Ignorance really does cause hurt.
Posted by: Amanda Blinn | October 25, 2011 at 07:04 PM
My first thought is that both the lady and her daughter thought that your son was listening to music (hip-hop? rap? heavy metal?) via earbuds, and was groovin' to the beat.
They probably had no idea that he is autistic.
Yes, many people in our culture jump to all kinds of unfair conclusions, especially when unexpectedly encountering a special-needs child.
But aren't you jumping to an unfair conclusion here, too?
Maybe there's a teaching moment here for US.
Posted by: Taximom | October 25, 2011 at 06:28 PM
My son rocks in the car too. Maybe we should have a bumper sticker that says "Quirky People Rock"
Posted by: Sarah | October 25, 2011 at 03:28 PM
Because I am sick of tired of stupid WARS based on FEAR & GREED!
Wars against "terrorism," which are actually wars to control world resources like oil (which fuel those big SUV's). Wars which send our precious soldiers home as double and triple amputees, and use them to test new vaccines (but let's slap a stupid bumper sticker on our truck and call it support). Wars which kill hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians in foreign countries.
Wars on "disease" which poison an entire generation of children to one degree or another. We unwittingly conscript our most precious gift - our kids! And how dare any of us ask any questions?
Get the picture now? All of this stuff is tied together. Our government LIES to us, not for our own good but for the good of the few who control everything. And we buy it out of greed and self-interest. They know that.
And we laugh at others, from up high in our SUV, to pretend it doesn't affect us . . .
Posted by: Parent | October 25, 2011 at 02:43 PM
Thank you all for the thought-provoking comments - they are much appreciated.
I guess it's possible that I could have misinterpreted the woman's actions, but something about the way she looked away quickly when I looked at her face makes me think she wasn't operating with the best intentions. My son has done some humorous things in public (!) and when bystanders take notice, they usually maintain eye contact with us or give a smile or nod. This was something altogether different, or so it appeared to me. But as you point out, I guess I could be wrong.
Again, thank you for your comments.
Posted by: Donna Laken | October 25, 2011 at 02:15 PM
Having not been there and seen your son, it is hard to know exactly what the lady and her daughter were thinking they were seeing. I try to live my life by giving people the benefit of the doubt and even though it was still rude to stare and laugh at your son, I would much rather believe that they thought your son was playing or 'rocking out' to the music. I just find it hard to fathom that any parent would knowingly make fun of anyone with a disability and teach this to their child. But, perhaps I am just being naive.
Posted by: Steven | October 25, 2011 at 01:10 PM
To "Parent", what does supporting our troops or driving an SUV have to do with the actions of that bad mom in the SUV? That mentality?
I have a child with autism and I feel compassion for other children like my son. I was shocked and angry when I read what that other mom did, but I was also angered when you equivocated mocking a child to supporting America's troops or driving an SUV.
Posted by: Lori | October 25, 2011 at 01:01 PM
Ten bucks says the little girl in the white SUV has issues of her own, and this was Mom's way of making both of them feel better about it. They were probably on their way to or from a Sylvan Learning Center where she gets help with her reading or math skills. (Or both.) I've seen this type of "pecking order" behavior in the world of disabilities. Very sad and unfortunate. Too bad there's not a Sylvan Learning Center for parents with empathy challenges.
Posted by: Madvocate | October 25, 2011 at 12:47 PM
I really like the idea of submitting it to your local paper's Op-ed section. Even if the pathetic mom doesn't read it herself, it is apt to make many other people think... Your family sounds like ours, always trying to be considerate of others, too bad more people in this society don't have that same mentality.
Posted by: MelissaD | October 25, 2011 at 12:30 PM
My first thought was that they thought he was mugging for them.
Posted by: Theodore Van Oosbree | October 25, 2011 at 11:25 AM
Such a hurtful experience. That is one disturbed parent- I feel sorry for her kid. She sounds like that horrible parent who cyber-bullied another child. There's a phrase that cones to mind, something like, " forgive them, they know not what they do."
Posted by: Jen | October 25, 2011 at 10:54 AM
Thank you for this important post. Ah, this story is so familiar to so many of us! Mostly we never think of the swift response until much later, though that's probably for the best. People who bully in this way are sick and dangerous.
The other child victim in the story is the kid in the SUV whose mother is coaching her how to bully. The process of creating a bully is a lot like creating a fighting dog. They have to be bullied and brutalized to fill them with enough rage and hatred, then aimed at targets. It doesn't just come naturally.
Posted by: Gatogorra | October 25, 2011 at 10:22 AM
Please submit this to your local community newspaper. Even if the horrible woman from the SUV doesn't recognize herself, surely other community members will .
Posted by: samaxtics | October 25, 2011 at 10:14 AM
Did she also have a "bless our troops" sticker on that big gas-guzzling SUV? That would seem consistent with that mentality.
Gosh darn your post makes me sad. What in the world are people thinking doing that kind of crap? How could a mom be so devoid of compassion and decency? I guess that's where we get many of our societal problems.
I'm so sorry you had that experience.
Posted by: Parent | October 25, 2011 at 09:41 AM
I am glad you didn't leave your geographical area and a description of SUV mom, I'd be driving around your town looking for her!
Posted by: Sylvia | October 25, 2011 at 08:34 AM
Wow. What a horrible human being.
Posted by: black and white cat | October 25, 2011 at 07:21 AM