It is day nine of our vacation and we are still halfway across the country from our home. We have been traveling all day to get from New Mexico to our home in Maryland. We have just finished dinner in the Houston airport, and my three kids, with my permission, run from one side of the airport hallway to the other wall to play a game on a display. Jack, my autistic 8-year-old, is nearly run down by a speeding airport cart, saved only by his stopping short and the screeching of brakes from the thankfully alert driver.
"The parents are supposed to be watching," I hear a young man chidingly say to his young female companion. I hear him from where I am standing, ten feet away from my child—watching him with both of my eyes.
"I am," I hiss at him.
I don't know if he heard me, but I do know that at least three other people I see are shaking their heads and rolling their eyes, and they're not judging the cart driver, who was driving so, so quickly through a crowded airport walkway.
They are judging my son and they are judging me. They are taking the tiny amount of information they know about my family and they are judging us based upon it.
They aren't thinking about the fact that Jack is completely disregulated from a week and a half of travel. They don't know how well he has held himself together during our vacation. They don't know how hard I have worked to keep him and his two brothers safe, mannerly, and happy while they are so far out of their comfort zone. They aren't thinking about how having to look both ways inside a building to avoid being hit by a car is so out of context for my child that it would never occur to him to do it.
I am horrified that Jack was almost hit by a cart. I am embarrassed that I didn't stop him and that people are thinking badly of me and him. I am hurt and furious at the reactions of the onlookers. I am second guessing my actions as a parent. I am tired from more than a week of managing special needs kids in unfamiliar environments and stressful travel.
But most of all, I am done. I am so over people who judge others when they know maybe a third—if that much—of the story.
This is when it is hard to have a child with an invisible disability. My kids look just like every other typical child, but they are dealing with autism, ADHD, and sensory processing issues. They see, process, and react to the world differently than other kids.
It's not even really just about special needs. When you see a child having an irrational tantrum in a store, all you are seeing is the tantrum. You aren't seeing the autism diagnosis. Or you aren't seeing the fact that the child's parents are going through a divorce or that the family pet has just died. You aren't seeing that the child's parents unfairly yelled at him or that the mean girls in her class teased her earlier that day.
Yes, some kids are spoiled and sometimes children are just rude or badly behaved. But you can't tell which is which by watching an isolated incident. And no, special needs and extenuating circumstances aren't excuses for poor behavior. But they do shed light on the situation and perhaps illuminate why the child and the parent act the way they do. You can't know just by watching if the child and parent are misbehaving or if they are doing the very best they can.
I'm not an innocent either. Since having a special needs child, I am better at remembering that there may be unseen things at play when I see a child (or adult) behaving poorly, but, yes, I sometimes judge strangers based on ten seconds of observation. I try so hard not to though.
I don't give my kids carte blanche to behave any way they want. Trust me, I don't. You can ask them, they'll tell you. Nor do I accept any behavior that harms or hurts other people. And I'm not talking about letting kids off the hook for everything. I'm talking about strangers. I'm talking about people who roll their eyes and make snarky comments about people they have watched for a short amount of time.
It can be so hard to parent. I wish that strangers didn't make it harder.
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.