Sometimes, when we need shopping mid-week, we tie it in with tea time and the children pick a meal in the supermarket café. For them, it is a dizzying experience, provoking jumps of joy and jubilant chanting.
In the last six months, we have been three times.
The first time, in the winter, they did not have my son’s choice available after I had already asked him what he would like. After the screaming, after the stares, after holding my sons heaving body, racked with sobs, I learned my lesson.
The next time we went, in the spring, I walked straight up to the cashier and asked which children’s menu items they had – all were available. The children jumped around me, happily trotting and eagerly announcing their choices. People passing may well have thought how well-behaved and pleasant my children were. They ate their food happily, animatedly relating parts of their day and observations about the supermarket. All was well. There were no sobs, no heartache. Strangers smiled at us as they walked by.
Last week, we went for a third time.
It is the summer holidays. My gorgeous boy is fragile. The days do not have the same, familiar structure. His little sister is always present, always wanting to play. She does not understand his invisible lines, does not know when he needs to be left alone. We are all fractious, hot, weary after a day of treading carefully, of damage control.
I walk up to the cashier. The café is the type that is partially self-service, with trays you push along a shelf while collecting your drinks and extras, before telling the cashier which hot food you will like.
But I do not grab a tray. I head straight to the front.
“Excuse me, could you let me know which children’s menu items are available, please?”
“What items do you have from the children’s menu?”
“It’s over there.”
“Yes, I mean which ones do you definitely have today?”
“Lamb shanks –“
“Sorry, I mean the children’s menu?”
Next to me, my son convulses against me. He begins to verbally stim – angry noises, growls. I hold him.
“I do not understand what you are asking.”
The cashier is confused and exasperated with me. She is polite, but I can see from the look in her eyes that she is frustrated. She does not understand why the question is important.
“Sorry, my son is autistic, if I let him pick a meal and then it turns out you do not have it, he will get distressed. I just need to know which food on the children’s menu you definitely have?”
“Oh. Er… only sausages really.”
“Only sausages? Out of the whole children’s menu?”
My son screams.
I turn my attention away from the cashier and hold him close, whisper in his ear.
“Sweetheart, listen, they do not have much food. They only have sausages. Do not want sausages?”
He is raging now, heartbroken. The whole café turns to stare. His sister is quiet, looking at the cake stand a few steps away. I call her.
“H, do you want sausages?
“Er, no mummy.”
He screams again.
“But we came for tea. We came for tea. How can we come to tea if they have none of the things we like!”
Holding his sister on one side and cradling my arm around him to exert pressure, I talk into his ear.
“Now listen, everything will be ok. We will think of a plan to fix things, ok?”
He thrashes, yelps, growls.
“Ok, how about we have a topsy-turvy kind of tea time?”
The sobbing stops. He looks at me, a half smiling forming on his tear-stained face. He likes topsy-turvy, revels in the absurd, when it follows the right rules.
“How? How will it be topsy-turvy?!”
“Well, we could have our dessert here and then have something for tea when we get home, all back to front!”
“Yes, that is a good plan. That is a funny plan!”
The tension holding my body rigid relaxes, and I slump a little as we make our way to the cake display. Those who were staring return to their meals and shopping.
This is the world we navigate. Missing menu items and toilet hand-dryers and unexpected closures or traffic jams – they tilt the day on its head.
Under a plastic dome, the children gaze at muffins with brightly coloured wrappers.
“Pink! Pink” shouts my daughter. “I want the pink one!” – her favourite colour.
But there is only one pink wrapper, and it is my son’s favourite kind of muffin.
My boy is brittle. He is hanging by a thread, balanced on a precipice between joy and despair. Day in, day out he is exhausted by them – the faceless unexpected things.
Clinging to my skirt, he collapses, shrieks echoing around the supermarket.
And as the shoppers turn to stare again, faces stern and eyebrows raised, I hold my children tightly and whisper that we will find a way to make it all ok…