A Smile Instead of Judgement

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Strange, unexpected things happen in front of us all the time, and the unusual behavior of others may cause you to raise an eyebrow (or two). It’s just a fact of life. Speaking as one of those people who more often than not is the cause of such a scene I would ask that you think twice before rushing to judgement. You never really know what is going on, or why. It would also be nice if you could smile at people instead of sneering at them, because they may be in desperate need of some compassion. You don’t know how many times I have wished I could say that to the mean-face-making people I encounter.

It was a Tuesday night, I was going on 4 hours sleep, and had been frantically working for the past two days on an issue that was both unexpected and time-sensitive. I was already done. My two boys and I showed up just in time for the Talent Show at their Elementary School and sat in the back of a packed house. My youngest  has an Autism Spectrum Disorder that tends towards the Asperger’s side, with some ADHD as well as Sensory seeking AND avoiding behaviors thrown in (just to make things even more Not Boring). I have ADD and some Sensory Processing struggles myself, and when I am exhausted or in a crowd those struggles are intensified. Some days I am able to effectively cope with my own issues as well as my son’s occasionally unpredictable behavior. This was not one of those days. When we arrived my son saw a little girl who was playing on an electronic device and he zoned in on it like a moth to a flame. He couldn’t resist his sudden impulsive need to watch the game, and crowded her older sister in his efforts to see the device. Not socially acceptable behavior, but also relatively harmless. He was pushing the teenager out of his way a bit and she looked frozen with the uncomfortableness of the situation, like she had no idea WHY my son was doing such a thing or WHAT she should do about it. He also almost had his head on the shoulder of the little girl… and they were all strangers. I was embarrassed and rushed over and yanked my son more roughly than I should have, saying, “Don’t DO that!” I then apologized to the family, joking, “I guess he really wanted to see!”  That broke the ice a bit and they were very nice about it, but it was still awkward. I then noticed an older couple sitting behind them who had been watching the whole scene and were staring at us, horrified. I smiled at them with an apologetic, “What can you do?” sort of look. All I wanted was a gesture of human kindness in return, some small sign of understanding or the slightest hint of a smile back, yet their judgmental expression remained the same: thin lipped, eyebrows raised, eyes widened in shock and scorn. It made me feel like they were thinking, “WHAT is WRONG with that boy!?! And that MOM… she is MEAN!” Their expression was anything BUT kind. I even caught them whispering about us once I looked away, I could tell because they immediately stopped when they realized I was watching. It was an awful feeling, and made all the difficult things I was experiencing even more difficult. And the night was just beginning.

During the entire Talent Show my son was constantly fidgeting, jumping, and grabbing me. That last part was what sent me over the top. Every time he tugged at my hair or grabbed my earrings or shoved his face into mine it felt like someone had shocked me with a cattle prod. I could NOT deal. I would grab his hand and push it away and hiss, “STOP IT!”  Not my best mommy moment, I admit. There are a lot of days that I struggle and this was one of those days. I was not very patient and I was not very loving, I was mostly just irritated. I swatted his little hands away a little too roughly and said, “STOP IT!” a little too loudly to be kind, but not loud enough to disturb others. Every time it happened I saw those narrowed eyes staring at me from across the table and those thin lips spread into an expression of derision. We weren’t causing a disruption, there was just some tense whispering and a lot of squirming. I just wanted to call out to them, “I’m EXHAUSTED and doing the best I can!”, to say ANYTHING to get them to stop judging me, but words failed me. And honestly, maybe I deserved their judgement, but my SON did NOT. I could not abide the way they looked at him. Finally I couldn’t take it any more and we had to leave.

So many of us have similar tales to tell.  Years ago I wrote “Choose Compassion” about a friend who was on an airplane when a child with Autism began to have a large meltdown. I encourage you to read the whole story, the reactions from some of the other passengers were less than compassionate. My friend did what she could to help the situation, and wrote me this, “I couldn’t stop thinking about you. How many times have YOU been in a situation like this when you just needed someone to help just a little bit? I kept wondering what would help, and I did give the woman tissues. I did offer help… and (she) was doing the best she could.” 

Parents of children affected by Autism have a tricky job trying to navigate how to have as “normal” a family life as possible. We cannot hide at home forever, and deserve the right to be in public places. When we do venture out it is with a lot of preparation and we are constantly trying to avoid complications. This is because we wish to protect our child from being overwhelmed, and because we do not wish to cause a disruption in public. Sometimes, despite our best planning, disaster occurs. My friend Dilshad, “Muslimah Next Door” over at the Patheos website,  wrote about one such experience~ “Yes, there was a meltdown, and yes, it was epic. And yes, there were many, many people around us – tony Georgetown, young beautiful types gathering for drinks and flirting, enjoying the late afternoon sun on Memorial Day weekend… My dad tried to keep the youngsters in check while I endured Lil D’s head butts, scratches and pinches and tried to block him from hitting his head on the concrete.”

She continued, “A crowd gathered. A crowd actually gathered to watch, whispering to each other, pointing. My words and composure left me in those minutes. My son’s dignity was ripped to shreds.”

When I first read her story (the post can be found here) I didn’t just weep, I actually sobbed. My throat and my heart ached with the pain caused by such callousness, such cruelty, to treat a moment of human struggle as merely a spectator sport. Not ONE person took the time to offer to help, but a whole crowd took the time to stop and stare and even POINT. I understand if people didn’t know how to help and were afraid to make the situation worse, but if so they could have just kept on walking. They didn’t know how to help, but apparently they did know how to gawk. It has been almost a year since I first read Dilshad’s story and I still get just as worked up about it today.

So there you go. Three tales, of varying intensity, that all share examples of different ways that people have responded when faced with an unusual scene in public. Think about that the next time you see an exhausted mother speaking a little too sharply to her child as she struggles to navigate both his wriggling body and her full shopping cart to the car. Or the next time you hear a child wailing in public and think he just needs more discipline. You don’t know their story. Sometimes we parents are simply doing the best we can. Sometimes the child is simply overwhelmed by sights and sounds and cannot contain their emotion. But a smile, or even a “Is there anything I can do to help?”, could go a long way. And it would certainly be more constructive than a sneer of judgement.

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7 thoughts on “A Smile Instead of Judgement

  1. dgregoryburns April 10, 2014 / 9:09 PM

    Hi, I am the father of a 23 year old son who is severely autistic. His name is Micah. I have written a book about being a single father raising a son with autsm, and his twin brothers. A number of publishers have shown interest but do not think I have a strong platform to promote the book. One thing they want is for my blog to have more followers. Please follow my blog and help me get “Micah’s Touch” published. Thank You, Darian http://www.darianburns.com

    Like

  2. Full Spectrum Mama April 11, 2014 / 5:23 PM

    BEAUTIFUL POST. Do all these NT people lack the empathy to imagine themselves into another’s situation???? Is that what it is? I’m not being entirely rhetorical here…I was in almost the EXACT same situation yesterday: my son and I are both on the spectrum and he has a tae kwon do class that lasts until 6:30 so after working all day i – also on spectrum – am losing it and if ANYONE is playing on a game he MUST squeeze right in next to him. then 1. he’s a weirdo and 2. i am the bad guy. I also have a daughter who has severe public meltdowns. Been there so many times…and so naturally, like you, i am likely to smile at that parent in the same boat, maybe offer a word of encouragement, however awkward… But what about those who’ve not been there? Why DO they make you feel worse??? So dehumanizing for all concerned.
    Anyhoo, thank you.

    Like

    • Jennifer (Seriously Not Boring) May 22, 2014 / 1:47 PM

      I think we are all in our own little bubble and our pre-conceived notions taint how we view others. I just pray that each day my eyes can be opened to ways that I can treat others with more compassion. I also hope that by writing this blog it may also help possibly open the eyes of others. I hope that you encounter compassionate people today!

      Like

  3. anca May 8, 2014 / 3:06 PM

    Hi Jennifer, I read your article and the comment and I just wanted to say that although I can understand the frustration, there might be a better question you can raise. The first one “why can people be more sympathetic” will not lead you to anything.
    Moreover, you are also judging them now, right? For something that you think is not right. But they are also thinking that you are not acting in a right way (something that doesn’t fit with their experience or values etc.), that’s why they are judging from the first place. You see the things differently because you have a different experience and perspective but try to see theirs. They do not know how it is to be in your place, so why to judge them? Try to be compassionate about them and just let it go. Be yourself better than them and brake the chain!
    The world is at it is but we can choose what we feel or tell ourselves. If you feel hurt it is not because of them but because you tell yourselves certain things and want their approval. If they are that mean, this is because they lack empathy, consciousness and these are their problems. The bad feeling is just yours and also the responsibility for what you feel.

    I wish you all the best!

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    • Full Spectrum Mama May 8, 2014 / 3:57 PM

      @anca, I think you are replying to the article and not to me (I, Full Spectrum Mama, am also a Jennifer, so…?), but I just want to reply to ONE bit of your response, which is that some of us cannot actually choose what we FEEL. My neurology is EXTREMELY sensitive, and I can get extreme pain or migraines from certain sights or smells or overstimulation…This makes it very hard for me to even think, let alone be coherent or compassionate for the needs of some to be trifling and judgy. Despite this, I have a very full and successful life, but i sometimes have to work extra hard to keep it together. My son has very real challenges in this same arena, and fewer tools with which to deal. I DO agree we can work on what we tell ourselves, though, and how we react, and try to design things for ourselves and our children so that there is more mental space (ie not taken up by neural pain and overstimulation).
      I am happy to remain on Team Smile…

      Like

    • Jennifer (Seriously Not Boring) May 22, 2014 / 1:44 PM

      Anca, yes, you have some valid points. I was also being judgmental of them, and I do not know their story. I admit my own behavior was at times worthy of looks, unfortunately. But what bothered me most was that they also treated my son with contempt. I am an adult, and aside from some venting I can take it. But to openly ogle a child and then stare cold-faced at the child’s parents even when they smile at you is un-kind. Hard not to react to that, BUT for the record I continued to try and treat them with compassion and continued to offer the occasional smile even when they did not do the same to me.

      Like

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