When my son Jack was a toddler, he threw great big fits in the grocery store. I mean fits. He flung himself on the floor, and shrieked, and one time, he knocked a jar of spaghetti sauce off the shelf and it shattered everywhere.
During all of these fits, not one person tried to help me. No one asked what I needed, or if he was okay, or offered to hold the diaper bag while I wrangled my red-faced child with both of my arms.
Sure, sometimes they made comments with a little bit of vinegar in their voice.
Wow! Tough day, huh?
Other times they coated their words with sugary sweetness and light.
Oh, you sure are giving your mama hard time!
One time I remember a woman waved at him, and asked him his name. He stared at her blankly, and before I could explain that he had autism and he didn’t always respond when people spoke to him, she turned back to her cart and walked away.
Listen, here’s the thing I want you to know. I am not the least bit upset or hurt about this. I don’t blame the people in the grocery store one bit—not even a teensy tiny bit. I mean, not at all.
Honestly, why would they try to help? They didn’t know what the heck was up with him any more than I did. My story is not new. I am not the first person to feel overwhelmed, or scared, or alone. Nor will I be the last.
Jack is thirteen now, and I know so much more about autism.
I know autism affects approximately one out of every sixty-eight children.
I know it’s not a fit, or even a tantrum, but a reaction to something in the environment he can’t tolerate.
I know that our culture is of the non-verbal variety. In other words, we communicate largely by gestures, or signals.
In other words, we nod, shrug, and wave when we want to get someone else’s attention or convey a message.
I mean, think about your day today. Did you nod your head at the woman in the grocery store who got to the line at the exact same time you did, because you wanted to let her know she could go first?
Did you shrug your shoulders at your children when the cashier in Kohl’s was taking a long time even though you promised them it would only take a minute to return the pajamas you bought and if they were good and patient and didn’t run around like nuts, then you could all get lunch at Chipotle?
On the drive home, did you lift your chin at the four-way stop to let the other driver know he could go ahead of you?
And when you went out for dinner tonight, did you kind of tilt your head toward your server to get his attention because you needed another fork?
My son Jack does not understand any of these signals. He does not understand the nodding or the shrugging or the head-tilting.
Teaching someone to recognize non-verbal cues is a lot like teaching someone to breathe, or blink. It is a language built around intuition—wordless gestures buried beneath ancient social constructs
Jack doesn’t understand social constructs. He doesn’t understand our shared perceptions of reality when it comes to gender, and beauty, and communication.
Why. For men. To not wear lipstick.
He doesn’t understand why swear words are bad, or why someone would wave hello, or salute to show respect.
In other words, in the restaurant he would just stand up, and shout that he needs a fork.
For ME. I need. A FORK.
He will be fourteen in a few months, my son of the broken spaghetti sauce jar, the non-waver, the fork-shouter. With each passing year, I realize I cannot change the world for this boy, anymore than I can change him for the world.
The world will continue to shrug and wave and point, and my Jack-a-boo will continue to shout and swear.
Every year, I hope for new things when it comes to my son and autism.
I hope this is the year of the long pause, and the unexpected answer.
The year we linger at our carts in the grocery store, and wait for the words a small boy holds beneath his tongue.
My name. Jack.
Mostly, I hope this is the year we have the courage to look at one another, and ask one question.
This question is exactly five words long, like the fingers of a gentle hand unfolding to a tentative wave.
It is a tender meeting of two worlds, and the heartfelt space between sugar and vinegar.
It is simple and straightforward, yet beneath the syllables lie great possibility.
Try it. Ask it the next time you see a young mother trying to soothe a screaming child.
Ask it when you see someone in a wheelchair struggling to open a door, or a person who looks a little lost.
Ask. You’ll never be sorry.
How can I help you?
Happy 2018, everyone.