When I was grocery shopping the other day, a mother and her son passed by me in the floral department. I’d guess she was in her 50s, because her son looked about 10 years older than mine. And, yes, her boy played for our team: Autism. Six feet 2 inches of young man flapping his hands next to the strawberries and “oooo-wheeeeing” in the dairy section. But I knew before I saw the stims (that self-stimulating behavior common in autistic kids). It’s amazing how quickly I can spot a child who’s on the same part of the autism spectrum as my son Jake.
When I see another family with a special needs child, I always try to smile — at the child, or the parent, hopefully both, to show that, even though I don’t have a stamp on my forehead or my son in tow, I understand a little bit about their life. There are days when I just hope we can get through one single transaction without a struggle, and knowing there is a compassionate stranger nearby can make all the difference for me. But she wouldn’t make eye contact with me, or anyone else for that matter, except her son.
It was precious to see her speaking to him so clearly, looking directly into his face, in an undistracted and meaningful way, but I also found it distressing that she perhaps has had to block out the rest of the world. I felt compelled to go over to her and make some benign comment about her shoes to initiate a conversation. I wanted to make sure she knew that there are people out there who would help if we could, who know a lot of resources, who could take the cart if things got a little hairy in the parking lot (even though her son was doing an awesome job). And, let’s face it, I just wanted to take care of her. Which made me feel a little like a creepy stalker, because maybe she just wasn’t that social in the first place. But I think what I really wanted to know is: Will I become like her? And will Jake be like her son?
Will I be so over other people staring at us by then that I’ll stop bothering to make eye contact? Will I look a little more resigned, but a little braver too? Will I look that tired, even more tired than I already look? Will my shoulders be that hunched? Will I look like I desperately need a break?
And will my son be pushing the cart? Helping a bit, pausing for a little stim, then back to the cart, not running anyone over, not escaping? Will Jake still be with me, daily, when he’s 20? 30? (And will he be that handsome?)
Jake wears a men’s size 6 shoe already. He grows taller and stronger and more like a young man every day. It’s harder to pretend that he is going to stay a little boy forever when you’re shopping for shoes that big. But, like it does for so many parents, the future seems so far away right now.
For a while things seemed so hard that I couldn’t wait for Jake to get older, to grow out of whatever these troubles were. Then he did get older and — surprise! — that age had its own pile of worries. We experienced a lot of joy during those times too, but it always seemed like a better version of our family was just around the corner.
Now I try to be content with exactly where I am at any given time, and now that we’ve gained some stability, I’ve been neither looking forward nor looking back. At the moment, we’ve just been living, and enjoying, which is fine as long as I return to that planning for the future thing fairly soon. And I want to make sure there’s a plan for me too; one that involves maintaining my friendships, increasing the vegetable intake, getting more sleep. I don’t want to end up looking like that old red barn we pass on our way to the coast: confident, but beaten down, still in use but probably no longer structurally sound.
That day, of course, I went to the grocery store without a shopping list and came home with eight bags of groceries, and no plan for dinner. So perhaps I’ll start with feeding my family before I move on to the rest of my life.