I hear so many stories of parents of kids with autism who think twice before taking their children to certain public places. I do it myself. There are lots of reasons for this—but chief among those reasons, especially for parents whose kids don't appear to have a disability—is judgment of their children's behavior by the Nosy McBusybodies of the world.
I recently took my son Jack on a four-day trip with his special hockey team to an international special hockey tournament. There were a lot of things I was worried about in advance of this trip: I was worried that he would throw up all over the team bus on the nine-hour drive to the tournament; I was worried that he would be overwhelmed by the tournament and number of games; and I was worried that I would lose him at a rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike.
The one thing I wasn't concerned about was being judged for having a child whose behavior is outside the lines.
That is the advantage of hanging out with people in the disability community. Even though each parent and each child who went on the trip were wildly different, we all had a common base and we all got it. I can't remember the last time I spent a chunk of time with such an accepting, nonjudgmental group of people. I don't know if I ever have.
I found myself overwhelmed with gratitude over and over during the four days of the tournament, making me the weepy doofus who spent the trip with tears in her eyes. Honestly, however, it can be startling to find yourself in such an embracing, encouraging, nonjudgmental (and fun!) group.
See, the world can be hard. For parents whose children experiment with the world by occasionally tripping strangers or who have meltdowns when lights are too bright or noises are too loud, the world can be not just hard, but sharp as well. It is rare to find a place without edges. It is even rarer to find yourself in a place full of sensory pitfalls and stressful situations and to know that there are 30 people standing next to you to give you a hug, tell you a joke, shoot you a smile—or not see anything strange at all.
A friend of mine, also a special needs parent, came to watch a game when we were in Boston. I tried to prep her a little by sending her a message: "Bring coats and prepare for sensory overload, but also know that no one here will judge you." (I might have needed that message more than she did.)
The hockey tournament was amazing, inspiring, and I am so grateful to have gone. Still, the four-day trip was tough on Jack and me. Being with this group of people didn't erase my son's inappropriate behavior, nor did it make it easier for him to regulate himself. It was still frustrating to chase after a seven-year-old pushed past his limits or unwilling to skate in his tournament game. Yet all of this happened against a backdrop of compassion and understanding.
I am very lucky in that I have an extensive online community of special needs parents and supporters who make this sometimes difficult journey infinitely easier. I wasn't prepared to find the same thing in real life. I hope that all special needs parents are able to find a community like this. I wish it weren't such a rare thing.
Stimey writes a personal blog at Stimeyland; an autism-events website for Montgomery County, Maryland, at AutMont; and a column called Autism Unexpected in the Washington Times Communities. You can find her on Twitter as @Stimey.