Monday, August 15, 2011

Parenting with an Audience

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.


  1. One of my favorite quotes (and one that I try to remind myself of often) is, "Be kind, for everyone is fighting a great battle."

  2. Yes, Aimee, yes! That is perfect. Love it.

  3. I love that quote! And I can't tell you how many times I have felt exactly like this. I used to be more bothered by people without children passing judgement, but in the last couple of years have found the judgemental and downright mean comments about my autistic son from other parents to be far more hurtful. Are they and their children so perfect, special needs or not? I'm not innocent of passing judgement, but like you, I try not to and I never assault another parent with my judgement.

  4. So my first instinct is to say "You know what? Screw those other people. What do they know. You are by far one of the best mothers I know. Screw them and their holier-than-though attitudes".
    But I know you well enough to know that this is not what it's all about. You know that it shouldn't matter, and you know what a great parent you are. It's about the invisible nature of Jack's needs and the inability of others to "see" all that he does. For that, I have no snappy response other than we go through that all the time. It's so hard. It's like I want my son to wear a shirt announcing his autism, and yet...sigh.
    Just I get it. Totally.

  5. After taking two separate week long vacations this summer, I completely sympathize with this scenario. I also try to convince myself I don't care what other people think.......and I don't, really. I just don't like when I'm trying my best, and doing a good job, and then one little get it.

  6. Thank you for the wonderful comments, you guys. It can be so easy to believe what the rolled eyes and snide remarks say about us, so thank you for reminding me that they are not true.

  7. I am so with you on this! Some days, dealing with the audience is more difficult than dealing with my child with autism. We're flying from Texas to California in October and this is the exact thing I'm worried about. If everyone would just cut everyone some slack, we'd all get along so much better.... Is it so hard to just be nice???

  8. I suggest that you make t-shirts for your kids.
    On the front: My mommy doesn't need parenting advice from strangers.
    On the back: So back the fuck off!

  9. I hear you and I get it. Snark never helps. xo You are a great mom. Own it!

  10. My daughter has "visible disabilities" and I still feel judged. She has always traveled well until this past June. I was traveling alone with her, we were returning home and on the first leg of the trip she screamed loudly, 3/4 of the way. I cried for at least 1/4th. At one point she even knocked my untouched coffee (with a lid thank goodness) on the floor. The flight attendant offered another but I declined. Why bother?
    As I sat there, consumed by the thought that the rest of the passengers were miserable, the flight attendant mouthed "It's okay". That was all I needed. One kind person to understand and to communicate that it is okay.
    I love this post because if we can spread the word that all parents who are dealing with children who may be tired, ill, over stimulated, hungry or deal with invisible differences in their bodies need comfort, not criticism, then maybe, just maybe we can be that hand on the shoulder that says "It's okay".

  11. I find that, in general, many people expect ALL children -- no matter their age, no matter their particular situation, no matter the setting -- to act like adults in public. The thing is, they are NOT adults. They are kids. I wish people would celebrate that fact, sometimes, instead of giving parents dirty looks.

  12. Our mantra for these kinds of situations is "You can't control the actions of other people, you can only control your response to them." If they are willing to judge so quickly, why concern yourself with their opinion? There's no value to a judgement made in ignorance. Treat it accordingly.

  13. As a parent and Peds OT I am so aware of the judgements that are passed, even I have been guilty. Just today when a mom said to me, "He works so well for you, is it me?" I thanked her for doing such an incredible job being his mom 24/7 and said , "No, it's him and his uniqueness and trust in you for accepting him and loving him all day, every day." I do not have all the answers and I usually generate more questions, but consistency in behavioral and sensory management and being proactive to anticipate the situations seems to work best for the many parents I encounter. I've often say one of the first five people I met when I get to heaven will be a child with autism ~ with all the answers.

  14. After a rough day at the children's museum on Monday, your post and the comments mean a lot. Marge, your comment especially made me cry. It is hard sometimes to love them all day, every day

  15. What a wonderful post. I'm glad to hear you are "over it" but of course it's so hard not to react, to hope not to hear those comments. I worry more about my husband, who seems to either be more sensitive to criticism or just invite more...he was waiting to give blood, blowing up glove balloons and letting the kids play with them. He tried to move everyone out of the way when a woman came by, but she chose instead to stand there and tell him how the kids were bothering everyone in the room, the others were just not willing to speak up like her. He reacted, a bit too loudly, and I swear someone told them both to take it outside or something. My son nearly got run over by one of those carts too, so not even near the category of "poor behaviour" on anyone's part.

  16. Great post. Now, repeat after me: "Your opinion of me is NONE of my business."

  17. Have I told you today that not only do you totally rock, but I love you and your little dudes? Because you are awesome. And airport cart drivers need to slow the hell down.