My parenting may seem unusual to you. You might think I am indulgent. Maybe you think I display favouritism, that I am soft, that I have made a rod for my own back. You probably won’t understand my odd reactions to what seems like misbehaviour from my son.
Every parent knows what it is like to have a screaming child in a public place. Every parent knows the hot ball of anxiety that blooms as people turn to stare. Every parent thinks they would understand, that they would not be the one to stare, that those tuts would never escape their lips.
But it was not my son’s high-pitched screaming in the supermarket that elicited your disdain, oh no. It was not the fact that his shriek was so loud, so visceral, that people on the other side of the store turned to see what was happening.
It was the way I dealt with it.
On Saturdays, we go to the supermarket as a family. My husband helps me to the café with the children and then runs off to get the things we need. Meanwhile, we have a treat – cookie for each of the children, a coffee for me. Imagine the scene.
I am struggling to the table holding my toddler and the tray, while my son follows behind. I manage to get my daughter into a high-chair, lift my son into his chair, take both their coats off and sit down to take their biscuits out of the packaging.
“Ok, H, shall mummy break for biscuit up for you?” I ask my little girl.
“No! H want biscuit! No break!” Her lip quivers.
My son screams.
“No! No! It has to be broken up! Please! It is always broken up!”, he wails.
I move his chair closer to me and put my arm around him so that I can exert some pressure. It helps to calm him.
“It’s ok E. H, please can I break up your biscuit for you?”
“No! Want biscuit!”
The second scream is much worse. It is ear-splitting, wracked with pain. Everyone nearby turns to look. They assume he must be hurt. He continues to scream and shout, can barely control himself, lashes out at the table.
I turn to my daughter, who is just two years old.
“Bubba, listen to mummy. E is very sad that I have not broken up your biscuit, like I always do. Please can I break it up?”
“No! Biscuit now!”
“Bubba, look at E. Do you see he is sad?” She nods. “He wants me to break your biscuit. Can I break it please?”
I break up my daughter’s biscuit for her and then I turn to my son. He is still distressed. It is never as simple as fixing the thing that is wrong. Once the storm comes it takes time to subside, whatever the cause. I hold him very close and very tightly.
“E, sweetheart. Look at H’s biscuit. You see, it is broken?” He sobs into my shoulder. “E, love, look. Look at the biscuit.” He looks over to his sister, who is happily eating her cookie. I feel him relax a little, under my arms. But he is still crying. Shouts and screams and grunts come every so often.
“Ok E, the biscuit is broken, just like always. Look. You see it? Good. Now listen. Sometimes, H doesn’t want the same thing as always. Sometimes she doesn’t want the same thing as you.”
He shouts, pulls against my hold.
“It is ok. It is ok bubba. Listen to mummy. I know you don’t like that the biscuit is different but sometimes other people want different things. You must try not to scream so loudly and explain to mummy instead. Screaming doesn’t help us understand. Ok?”
He does not speak. So often, when these feelings overwhelm him, he loses his language completely. The signs of his overpowering anxiety are clear to me. He huddles close, one hand tugging at his ear, the fingers of his other hand in his mouth. It will take him time to recover, time to become himself again.
When my son screamed, you turned to stare. You were eating breakfast with your husband, just a few feet away. You looked over at us for the whole of the incident I describe. I felt your eyes on me, uncomfortable pins of scrutiny while I tried to calm my children.
But the eyes rolls, the tuts, the obvious contempt for the way I dealt with my son, that only came after the screaming. That only came when you overheard the way I calmed him.
And that is the problem, you see. To be truly aware, you must be completely open-minded. It is not about screams. It is not about tantrums or meltdowns or seeing children acting out. It is about your assumptions. It is about the fact that your world has not intersected with mine before now. If you know someone with autism, still, you do not know my son. You do not know how any changes, any deviance from what always happens, from what he expects – it is terrifying to him. You do not understand why I pleaded with a two-year-old baby in reaction to my son’s ‘spoiled’ screams. You do not know why I seemed to comfort, to reward what you think I should have disciplined.
We left, and you went on with your day, none the wiser.
Tolerance is not about seeing a screaming child and reserving judgement. It is casting aside all your assumptions, everything you know about your life and what you think you understand.
It is hard but it comes more easily with practice. My son has taught me that.
To read more about our autism journey, you may like:
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