72. Pigeonholed in the Park

72. Pigeonholed in the Park

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Power of Forgiveness

Pigeonholed in the Park

Everything is just as it needs to be. And if we forgive, our minds and hearts would open and we could see another possibility.

~Iyanla Vanzant

I hate summer vacation. As the mother of a six-year-old with autism, the four weeks between the end of summer school and the beginning of the new academic year are hell. All children need consistency and routine, but kids on the spectrum thrive on it; if they don’t get it, everyone within our visual and auditory range is at risk of suffering from my child’s unpredictable behavior. And God help you if you happen to be within his kicking or grabbing vicinity.

As Mom, it’s my duty to be in the line of fire; and while I’ll happily throw myself in front of any potential victims, I can’t control everything. A shoe may fly, an errant fingernail may come in contact with a bystander’s skin, and all I can do is attempt to contain my son to the best of my ability and express my sincerest apologies. Sometimes it’s enough for the inadvertent victim and sometimes it isn’t. Unfortunately it’s all I can do, and I’ve had to learn through experience that liking it and accepting it are two different things.

During the ironically termed “summer break” my son Josh and I are on our own until my husband returns from work. It’s up to me to come up with activities that won’t over-stimulate him, won’t involve too much travel time, and won’t disrupt the majority of the people around us. I also can’t be fully certain that these potential outings will occur on the day originally planned. If Josh’s night is bad, a crowded amusement park with long lines is a big no-no. Same goes for museums and petting zoos. On those days we stay local and head to one of the neighborhood parks within walking distance of our home.

“Okay, Josh, let’s go!” I said enthusiastically on what was clearly a “park day,” hoping my frame of mind would catch up with my tone. I’d packed everything possible: towels, wet wipes, food and water, and made sure that there was enough room in his backpack once his shoes flew off and he insisted on going barefoot because of his sensory issues. I mentally prepared myself to ignore the stares of any passersby and the loud whispers of “why isn’t he wearing shoes?” from children to their guardians when we walked down the street. My goal was just to keep moving. Josh never seemed to notice the comments or stares, but every single one made my skin prickle. I’m both grateful for and envious of the cluelessness that autism grants my son when it comes to the reactions of the general public in these instances. I just wish that some of it would rub off on me.

Once we arrived, Josh did his usual running about between the stone frogs spouting water, the slides and the swings. All of a sudden, something caught Josh’s eye, something that made him squeal with delight. A large group of pigeons had gathered fairly close to us, simultaneously cooing and pecking at the ground, picking up bits of whatever they deemed edible. Josh immediately began flapping his hands with excitement and charged through the birds, causing them to hop, fly and scatter. Josh giggled and loved the reaction. Once again he charged, and once again pigeon chaos erupted!

It was an amazing moment. My son had noticed his surroundings! He’d created an action and learned the notion of cause and effect. These were huge developmental milestones for him! And not only that, he was genuinely enjoying himself in a completely appropriate way! He was playing with the pigeons, despite the fact that the birds themselves probably had a different opinion of what was happening. This was an amazing moment for us both… until I heard a voice scream “STOP IT NOW!”

I immediately looked up and saw a little girl and her brother each holding a sleeve of crackers. She marched right over to my nonverbal, autistic child, hands on hips and shrieked, “STOP SCARING THE PIGEONS!” I was furious. I didn’t care how angry she was; she had no right to yell at anyone. “Stop yelling at him,” I replied. This little girl wasn’t prepared to deal with another mommy without her own. She turned to a woman who was texting on her smart phone, and commanded, “MAKE HIM STOP CHASING THE PIGEONS!” The woman peered at me over the rims of her sunglasses and told her daughter, “I can’t make him stop.” Meanwhile, my son was still squealing, still running, still having the time of his life.

I wanted to beg her to have sympathy for my son. Couldn’t she see that he’s not neurotypical? Couldn’t she understand that this pigeon interaction was huge for him? That he hadn’t said a word throughout all of this because he couldn’t? But they just kept glaring, so I said nothing to them. Instead, I said, “Let’s go, Josh,” as I redirected him to the swings on the other side of the park, and slipped my own sunglasses over my eyes so that the tears welling up remained hidden. Josh happily complied and spent the remainder of our time in the park happily swinging while I pushed him and sang.

When we returned home I ran Josh’s bath and released my own frustration by weeping quietly. I wondered if it would always be this way, with people staring and getting angry because Josh didn’t notice them when he was involved in something. I understood their frustration. Would they ever understand mine? Would they ever realize the pain that I experience every time they judge him for just “not getting it?”

It was in that moment that I realized the answer was “No.” They wouldn’t understand my frustration because I let my anger at their response to my child stilt my own response to their offspring. Those who judged my family often did so because of lack of exposure to autism or a lack of understanding. That little girl was having a little girl response and was being protective of the pigeons; and her mother, a mother of two neurotypical children, was having a neurotypical mom response. Maybe she didn’t get where we were coming from; if she had, she might have been more understanding. Maybe it was up to me to change my approach to such situations.

I then went back into the bathroom where Josh was luxuriating in the tub. I smiled at my happy boy, rinsed my face and gazed at myself in the mirror. “I’ll tell you what, neurotypical mom,” I internally stated. “I’ll forgive your reaction if you forgive mine. In the future, I’ll let you know what’s going on so that you have an opportunity to make an educated choice as to how you want to deal with the circumstances at hand. And who knows? Perhaps as a result, our children will reach a respectful understanding of one another, and possibly bring about a better future for all of them.”

~Jennifer Berger

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