I was in an Alfy’s pizzeria with my family. My son, who has been diagnosed with PDD-NOS, a form of Autism, was experiencing some difficulties that were beyond his control, or anyone’s for that matter.
I feel I should preface my experience with the following explanation. As a three-year old who has social and communicative delays, my son cannot always articulate his needs, and many times, he cannot get past something being done in the proper order, according to his 3-year old mind. As his father, I have learned to deal with his autistic behavior and roll with his meltdowns and rituals. Once he has something figured out in his head, nothing may deviate from it. Otherwise, he experiences what my wife and I call a boxing match in his head. Until he can work through the problem in that insanely wired head of his, the world as he knows it comes to an abrupt end. I don’t expect anyone without an autistic child to understand. A good example of our daily meltdowns would be going through doors. He must open the door himself. If it is too heavy to open, he freaks out. If you try to help him, he freaks out. If you try to open the door and walk through first, he freaks out. Oftentimes, it is a meltdown waiting to happen. The irony is that the only way to get him over it is to get him out doing it as much as possible. You don’t lock a socially deficient child away; you get them out amongst people. Even if they melt down, it is something you have to deal with in order to socialize them. The same goes with doors, drink cups, forks, knives, getting into and out of a car seat, taking him to the park, eating dinner, going to sleep, waking up, brushing teeth, reading a story, changing a diaper, and on and on. Everything is a ritual, and everything must be narrated ad nauseam or you risk a meltdown. It is difficult. It is especially difficult in a dynamic environment, where things are happening around you that you have no control over. Interacting with other people, going to restaurants, and even walking through a parking lot brings around a lot of variables that we, as parents of autistic children, just cannot account for. We are especially in tune with our children, but we aren’t perfect. You surely aren’t perfect, so you can’t expect us to be… except we are more aware of our child’s surroundings than 90% of parents with “normal” children are. Still, we cannot always be on guard 100% of the time.
As my autistic son’s father, I’ve gotten used to the stares, glares, and occasional snide remarks made by people who don’t know or understand my son’s situation. I’ve become accustomed to people telling me make my kid be quiet, or offer their uneducated advice (I’ve never received a piece of advice from anybody that would have had a favorable outcome – chances are I’ve already tried it before and it failed miserably). You get used to people shooting you nasty looks or making comments just loud enough for you to hear, but not necessarily said for you to respond to. I’ve learned to ignore most of it.
There are times when you can’t ignore it though. A recent experience I had was in the parking lot of a big box hardware store. My son was flipping out for some reason or another – I really don’t know nor do I care. Everything for him was going wrong. He was put in the cart in the wrong order, his blanket was on the wrong side, his cup was empty, or the sheer fact that I looked at him the wrong had set him off, and he was in a full meltdown. He was in the cart screaming his head off; let me tell you, this boy has some pipes! As I stood there, just outside the store, waiting for him to calm down, a woman came up to me and said, “It looks like you need some help.” This wasn’t just a polite offering, oh no. This was in that bitchy tone of voice that makes men’s skin crawl. I told her to mind her fucking business. In fact, I knew exactly what I was doing. I was ignoring him because by doing so, I was giving him a chance to work out in his mind whatever needed to be worked out. This woman came up and injected herself into the situation and made him melt down even worse. If she had minded her business and walked away, he might have calmed down, but the fact that she entered into the situation by engaging me, made things worse.
Another instance was at a local sporting goods store. My son was having a heck of a time with a door, as we always seem to have. This woman, who works the register, came over and thought she was being helpful by attempting to hold the door open for him. She wasn’t helpful at all. Eventually, she gave up trying to help my son, and he got over it himself. Now, I don’t fault this woman – she was trying to be nice. But she had no business getting involved.
That’s the key. When you see a kid having an uncontrollable meltdown, and their parent is just standing there administering what I call TTT (Temper Tantrum Therapy), just mind your own business. I know it sucks listening to a kid scream, but chances are that if you are a parent, someone else had to hear your kid(s) scream at some point or another as well. And if you aren’t a parent, then I submit that you stay very far away because karma is a mean bitch, and if you start lecturing me on how it’s my responsibility to get my kid in line, karma will bite you in the ass and bite down hard! Don’t get involved. It’s not your problem. Stay away from it, don’t stare, and mind your own business.
Unfortunately, you cannot be told how it is. Like The Matrix, you have to experience it for yourself. But I hope that this short description helps to clue you in somewhat to the monumentally difficult task it is to be a parent to one of these children. The sad thing is that as far as Autism goes, my son really isn’t that bad. Imagine a kid with full blown non-verbal problem, no communication, strange self-stimulation gestures, no eye contact, etc. Unless you have experienced this at length, you really can’t know. It’s like combat, in a parental sort of way.
Getting back to the story, my son was in a full blown meltdown at the restaurant. My wife knew that taking him outside would be an epic fail because she watched me try it twice without favorable results. Since it is a family restaurant, and there were a ton of kids there anyway, she decided to take him over to a corner that was relatively secluded and quiet so she could give him time to regain his composure.
A man, who was sitting a few tables down, started to get annoyed at this, and motioned for my wife to take my son outside. The only problem is that would not work because of the door he’d have to come back through. She chose to ignore him; we’ve all seen people like him before and ignoring them usually works. At this point, the man came up to my wife and told her she was being disrespectful to him by letting my son scream in his presence. Lindsay tried to explain that our son has Autism and couldn’t help it, but the guy said that she needs to get my son outside and as far away from him as possible, or he’d talk to the manager and have us thrown out. My wife looked him dead in the eyes and said, “DO IT!”
All this accosting had done to the situation was make it worse. By coming up and yelling at my wife and yelling at my son, the man had frightened him and wound him up even worse, to the point where now instead of just pounding his fists on the floor and working his problem out, he was cowered in the corner underneath a candy dispenser, fearing for whatever it is that a 3 year old fears for. I may not be 3 years old, but if some giant, 4 times my size came up and started yelling at me, I'd be fearing for my life.
Up until this point, I was at the table in our reserved room (we were attending a birthday party for a friend), oblivious to what had just taken place. I was watching our daughter, who was already feeling a little anxious because my son was screaming and “Mom” wasn’t in the room with us. Someone came in the room and told me that a guy was yelling at my wife and son. At this point, I immediately stood up and looked across the establishment. I could see my wife, but no one was talking to her. I asked one of the mothers to watch my daughter for a minute, and walked over to assess the problem. By the time I got there, the man, an older guy in his 60’s was complaining to the manager. I looked over at Lindsay and asked her if that man was yelling at her and she said, “Yes.”
I immediately walked over and with my arms crossed, I announced myself as the boy’s father. The manager acknowledged me, and the older man immediately started in about how I need to train my kid not to scream out in public. I told him my son has a disability and cannot help himself and that my wife was handling the situation. It was not good enough for the man because he told me it was disrespectful for me to allow my son to scream in public and that it is my fault that his dinner was interrupted. He actually told me he came to this establishment for a “quiet dinner.” That’s like going to Chuck-e-Cheese to get some peace and quiet! You don’t come to a family restaurant where there are children aplenty and expect a quiet meal. Again, I told him my son has Autism and we will take care of it. He told me that I needed to leave.
At this point, I was starting to get extremely aggravated, but I remained calm. I told him he sounds like he’s never been a parent before. He said he was. I cut him off at this point and asked him if he’s ever raised an Autistic child. He told me that he didn’t even know what Autism was, but it still wasn’t an excuse to let my kid scream in public; it’s disrespectful to him, the establishment, and everyone around us. I quickly looked around, only to see 3 or 4 other kids screaming and carrying on elsewhere in the place. I looked back and him and said, “Fine, do you have a suggestion?” He suggested taking him outside or into the bathroom.
Both would have ended in disaster. We’ve already established my son’s door issues, so no need to beat that dead horse again. My son also doesn’t like bathrooms. I don’t know why. He just doesn’t. We avoid them like the Plague. I quickly dismissed his suggestions as misguided and naive, and to that he told me I should leave. I told him I have as much a right to be here as he does and I wasn’t about to leave, especially since our food was bought, paid for, and sitting at our table. I also told him that since he admitted to not know what Autism was, he was not qualified to speak on the subject, and to leave my wife and son alone.
At this point, the manager stepped in and sort of broke us up. Apparently, I was only a few inches from this guy’s face. I didn’t even realize it. My wife also said I never raised my voice, but boy was I ever being stern with this guy. Well no shit! Just get in my wife and son’s face and see how well I take it. That’s my family! That’s my wife! That’s my son! You don’t fuck with mine and expect me to react with political correctness and politeness! You will get what is coming for you. If that means I get in your face and tell you how it is without regard to your sensibilities, then that is it.
After the manager broke us up, he told the guy to go back to his table and ignore us. The man, obviously upset and defeated, reluctantly went back to his table. After that, the manager came up to me and told me it was quite alright, and that he had no intention of throwing us out. He also said that he sees this all the time, and that a crying child is nothing new to him, especially in an establishment that caters to families with small children, birthday parties, baseball teams, and Cub Scout pack meetings. I did apologize to the manager for the trouble, but he said it was okay and that I had every right to defend what was mine. He was going to forget it ever happened.
Now, I didn’t get the manager’s name, but I give him big props because he did the right thing. Nobody in the restaurant seemed to have an issue with my son crying – only this rigid old fart who was completely out of touch. Even if the old guy was a parent at some point in his miserable life, he was probably one back in the 60s or 70s when father’s did not take a big part in the parental matters and just worked 40 hours a week, only to come home and read the paper; and deliver the occasional beating when the kid’s got to be more than Mother could handle. That’s kind of how I was raised by my parents, and I was a child of the 80’s!
After all was said and done, I was getting ready to scoop up my son, who was now finally calmed down. (experience has taught my son that if he's scared, he no longer has to be when I'm around because the monsters are afraid of me - at least that's what I tell him) I was getting ready to take him back to our table when another dad stopped me and said, “Just so you know, none of us mind that your son was crying at all – all kids cry.” I was glad to know that. After I looked up, I could see the looks of approval from a lot of adults there, and felt vindicated for stepping in when I did.
There are two things in this world that you just do not do: 1, you don’t yell at a woman you do not know, especially a mother. 2, you don’t yell at a child with disabilities. This asshole broke two cardinal rules of social ethics and paid the price in the form of the 6’3”, 250 lb father of said child lighting him up in public, and getting the restaurant manager on his side in the process.
I cannot even begin to describe the kind of restraint I had to put forth to keep from yelling his head off. Fortunately, I kept my cool and point/counterpointed the argument with near perfect execution. The smiles and nods from some of the other parents in the joint helped solidify my position in this matter. I’m sure they also felt somewhat vindicated as well because all parents deal with the occasional asshole that won’t back down from time to time.