It's been a few months since this incident, but truthfully, I've been working up the courage to write this.
We were there taking family pictures. We must have looked to you like a happy family - dad, mom, and three vibrant boys all smiles. All sunshine. It was an oddly warm and beautiful day in late October. We must have looked, ya know...annoyingly happy.
But we were wrong.
You yelled again, so loudly we couldn't help but turn around. Really, though, that wasn't what made me turn my head. It was the sound before you yelled, "shut-up, just SHUT-UP!" It was the sound of a boy, maybe seven or eight. It was not words - it was a noise. A screech. A long and loud uninhibited screech. It was autism I heard.
Fire burned in me. I know autism. I know it well and intimately and I know it in public parks. I know it through high-pitched screeches and grunts and animal-like noises because sometimes our kids just can't muster words.
The boy, in fact, could not muster words. All the communication I heard from him was wordless which lead me to believe he was probably non-verbal.
You had three kids with you, including two little girls who were younger than your son. You were all dressed in old clothes; one girl had a stain on her shirt. Their hair was unkempt and shoes were worn. The older sister was trying to distract the little sister and at one point brought her into the gated area of the playground to go down the slides. She took the role on without being told which made me think she plays it often. From the looks of your car it was clear you didn't have much money. No private therapists. No health food store membership card.
You and your son stayed on the outside of the gate fighting over something that was unapparent, near the large decorative stone turtle we had just taken pictures on. Maybe he wanted to go. Maybe you didn't know what he wanted and from his lack of language just couldn't begin to figure it out. You shoved a bright red kid's drink at him and he refused. Nothing would make him quiet. Not even your incessant grabbing and commands to shut-up.
We were beyond trying not to look. I for one wanted you to see me. See my glare. See our disapproval. See our disgust in the treatment of your severely autistic son. I wanted to tell you you were horrible and pick your son up and hug him - if he would allow it - or comfort him in some other way. I wanted to throw the red drink at you and tell you that feeding him junk was not helping, but hurting him. I wanted to understand him and make you feel bad that you didn't.
I was all judgement and no grace.
It was time for us to move on to the next location - or maybe it wasn't. But something in the air told us all it was time to go.
I walked ahead with one of the boys, trying to get out of the uncomfortable environment as fast as I could. Trying to save my kids from the image of what was going on. As I did I heard the yelling finally subside.
But my husband and our friend lingered a moment behind. One of our boys was taking longer to leave and as God would have it, you walked to your car with your kids at the very moment my husband passed.
"Sorry, he's autistic," you said, dismissively. Annoyed. Exhausted.
"So are they," my husband said shortly, nodding to our boys. He was brief. He was unaccusing. He was the picture of grace I wouldn't have been.
You got into your car with your kids and drove away. We got in our van and continued our day, but you never left my mind. The day's events were burned in my memory; they broke my heart. I thought about you all night and for a long time now.
If I had it to do over, this is what I'd change:
I'd get past my pride and judgement and anger and I'd feel pity. I'd feel remorse. I'd see a woman without resources and without help and without an education on autism.
I'd see an opportunity instead of a catastrophe.
I'd introduce myself to you in the midst of the yelling. I'd pray for the right words to say to bring you comfort and peace. I'd tell you right off that I know how you feel. I'd look past your sin and bad behavior and recall mine. It may not have been me yelling shut-up or having a fit at a public park, but I've lost my temper plenty of times. And it's all the same in the end.
How many times have I been frustrated by autism? How many times, especially pre-diagnosis, did I throw up my hands because I could not understand what the boys wanted because of their language impairments? And where would I be without God's mercy in pointing me to resources and services and training? Or without Him giving me the support of my husband and our friends and family? I'd probably be at a public park on a Saturday, losing my mind.
We are all just one short step from falling.
I'd point over to my sweet twins who happened to be having a good few minutes at the park and tell you they have autism.
Then I'd say that I want you to know we don't always look like that. In fact, in public, it's taken us years of therapy to work up to looking like that. And even more specific I'd tell you that just that morning we'd worked through multiple meltdowns because picture day is not exciting for kids who have trouble sitting still and looking into a camera and smiling all at the same time.
Then I'd level with you. I'd say that I know it's hard. I see you're frustrated. I'd tell you it takes work - a lot of work. And then I'd give you my number. I'd offer to help and I'd mean it. I'd tell you about the support groups I'm in and the buddy program at our church for special needs kids that allows parents to stay in service without being a nervous wreck.
Now, I doubt you're reading this. Maybe you would be if I'd had the decency to give you this blog address as a resource. Maybe.
Whether we ever meet again or not, I want to send it out into cyberspace that I'm sorry. I want people to know things are not always what they seem. How many people have judged me and my boys because of autism? Too many to count. And even though I stand judged, I was so quick to judge. This was a hard learned lesson - and one I will never forget. If God is gracious enough to put another opportunity in front of me like this, I will think of you. And for your sake, I will try my best not to drop the ball again.