You know how it is. When you have a child with special needs and you dare to venture out in public, you often get stared at, sometimes judged. You know what people are thinking because occasionally they say it out loud. “Somebody needs a spanking!” “Can’t you control your child?” “You shouldn’t have him out in public, disturbing others.” I’ve heard it all. And believe me, it got to a point where I just stayed home, other than the mad dash to the grocery store, when I needed something and there was no one to watch my boys, so I had to take them with me. And why bother with restaurants? My older son’s sensory issues were so extreme that he would writhe on the floor in agony, wailing “go” every few minutes. It was one of the only words he could say at age five.
Time passed, and we dared to venture out a little more. After years of intensive therapy, my son’s sensory issues had become more manageable. But only for a limited time, of course. After ten or fifteen minutes in a restaurant, he needed to crawl under the table for relief. This does not look good at any age, but it’s really frowned upon by age twelve. And although my son had eventually learned to talk, he still didn’t understand the social expectation of thanking the wait staff when they bring you something. I would always model the appropriate response, and at some point, my son started saying “thank you” when prompted. Almost every day, in various situations, I would need to prompt him. After a while, after the thousandth time, I thought it would always be that way.
Then one day not too long ago, at the age of fifteen, my son said his first unprompted thank you when someone had waited on him. I was happy, of course, but I figured it was an isolated incident. I figured that we’d go right back to the prompting routine that had been in place for so many years, that it was a crutch for him. You see, even when my parenting is not being openly criticized by others, I criticize it myself. You know how it is.
Soon after that day, we went to a restaurant. I sat in awe as my sons conversed. There was no wailing, no writhing on the floor. No crawling under the table. No going up to other patrons at their tables and repeating a line from whatever movie had been watched earlier in the day. And when a plate of food was placed in front of my older son, he said Thank you. Completely unprompted. And I allowed myself to entertain the notion that maybe all the years of prompting had not been a crutch. It had been what he needed in order to learn what was socially acceptable, what was expected of him. It just took him a really long time to get it down.
And now, he’s got it down. Last week, we went out to dinner at a restaurant that we’d gone to periodically over the years, once my son had gotten to a point where he no longer wailed and writhed on the floor. In the past, he’d crawled under the table many times, he’d gotten up and walked all around, he’d had to go outside for sensory breaks. He’d never acknowledged the waiters. But this time was different. This time it was like autism took the evening off.
I know that’s not how it is for my son. Even on the infrequent occasions when things seem effortless, when things flow seamlessly, he is hard at work – processing, filtering, anticipating, regulating. Autism is always with him. But that evening, at dinner, he was flawless. He placed his order like a pro, he conversed, he joked with the waiter, he thanked him - unprompted – three separate times (!), he politely and discreetly asked where the restroom was and returned to the table afterward without wandering. It was nothing short of amazing, and perfect for the occasion - celebrating the publication of my book. For the first time ever in a restaurant, we were able to stay for dessert, and I savored every moment.
But the real treat, the best moment of all, was when the waiter brought us the check at the end. “I just wanted to tell you how well-mannered your sons are,” he said to me. Of course, all parents love to hear that. They smile and say thank you; they’ve probably heard it before. But I never had. Certainly not from a stranger. And my expression probably looked odd to him as I said, “Thank you very much,” while trying not to cry. All those years and years of stares and judgment, writhing and wailing and crawling under tables are finally behind us. Not to mention the years of incessant prompting, wondering why I bothered. Now I have my answer.
And I don’t think that waiter will ever know how much his words meant to me.
Tanya writes TeenAutism.