On the last day of vacation we decided to go back to the San Diego Zoo. David could ride the bus and cable car and the girls could play on the playground (they just weren't that into seeing animals).As Dave and I exited from the cable car, the Simex theatre caught my attention. It was playing segments from the Ice Age movie and promised to provide a full 4-D experience, complete with snow blowing in your face, seats that bump and the smell of exotic fruit. David loves sensory stimulation and I wanted to give him this thrilling experience. So I agreed to pay $10.00 for a 15 minute show.
David waited patiently in line and eagerly took his seat in the theatre, right in the center of the last row. We were ready for the adventure to begin. And then I heard it, that sucking sound David makes when he is excited. I froze in my seat. This was going to be a really long 15 minutes.
If only they'd get the movie started.
Please let it be a really loud show.
The doors slammed shut and everyone was seated. We were trapped in the dark with nothing to listen to but the sound of David furiously sucking the saliva through his teeth.
Why weren't they starting the movie yet?
I looked around. Remarkably no one was turning around or staring or giving us odd looks. Not even the man seated directly next to David. I immediately felt grateful for their silent tolerance.
But then a young lady two seats away leaned over and tugged on my arm. "Make him stop! Make him stop!" she ordered.
I knew I couldn't make David stop, but I tried to anyway. He responded with a loud protest. So I left him alone. The sucking sound was better than a tantrum.
I decided to apologize to the young woman afterwards. But it no use, she was angry and didn't understand.
I walked away. Slowly.Held back by the wall of shame that enveloped me.
I never should have gone into that movie theatre. I usually try to be sensitive to the people around me, but this time I blew it. I hadn't even considered how David's sucking sounds might be a problem.
I pulled my hat down a little lower and put my sunglasses on to hide the tears welling up in my eyes.
I entered that theatre feeling somewhat OK about my place in the world as David's mother. I came out feeling very different.
Various people walked past me. I felt so separate from them now.
They were normal.
They belonged there.
Dave and I didn't.
When I met up with Rob at the playground I told him about my experience. I brought it up again on our long ride home. I couldn't let it go. The more I talked about it, the more I hurt.
Too bad it had to happen on the last day. It put a damper on the whole trip. Maybe if I thought bad thoughts about that lady, I'd feel better.
After discussing it for some time Rob helped me recognize the many positive experiences we'd had on our vacation. We'd been the recipients of many unexpected acts of kindness as people went out of their way to accommodate my family.
Like the honest people who turned in Rob's wallet when he lost it at Seaworld. Or the family who let us go in front of them in line to see the Giant Panda's. Or the staff at The Coronado Club Room and Boathouse. In an effort to enjoy the most pristine beach we found ourselves camped out in front of this private, members-only facility.
The clubhouse building had a ceiling fan and David is obsessed with ceiling fans. Forget the sand and the water, the only place he wanted to be was near that fan. I dragged him away kicking and screaming and tried to interest him in the beach. But that didn't work, so I started packing up our things thinking we might have to leave. When I looked up I saw one of the staff members from the boathouse approaching me.
"It's OK if your son wants to come inside our office and play with the ceiling fan. I don't want you to have to leave," she said.
I hesitated, but she insisted, "It's OK, we're fine with it."
She sat and talked to me as David ran in and out of the office, turning the fan on and off. She asked a lot of questions about autism and at one point reassured me, "You came to the right beach."
I will never forget her kindness.
In the course of my conversation with Rob I noticed there'd been more positive experiences on our vacation than negative one's. There'd only been one negative incident. So why was I still hurting?
I realized I had a choice to make.
I could choose to focus on that one hurtful experience and let it fester or I could choose to celebrate the many positive acts of kindness we'd received.
I could choose bitterness and anger or I could choose gratitude and joy.
The choice was mine.
If I want others to be tolerant of my son's awkward and inappropriate behaviors then I need to be tolerant of those whose limited experiences keep them from understanding.
Ten years ago I was that young lady in the theatre who didn't understand.
As newly weds Rob and I flew to South Africa so I could introduce him to my family and my country. On the flight from America to Europe two young children screamed a lot for a long time when the rest of the plane was trying to sleep.
I remember turning around and looking at the parents of those young children. They both stared forward with a glazed look in their eyes. What incensed me most is that those parents just sat there looking frazzled, not doing a thing to make those children stop!
While I restrained myself from expressing my contempt, I felt it. My limited understanding of the world told me that it is a parent's responsibility to control a child's behavior. And if you aren't able to do this, you aren't a good parent.
How the times have changed.
I now have children of my own.
I now understand there are times when you just can't make a child stop. And that doesn't make you a bad parent.
That young woman in the theatre didn't have any children, let alone an autistic one. How could she possibly understand the challenge I was facing?