“Not every disability is obvious.” I wanted to wear that quote around on a sandwich board sign. To the grocery store when my son, Garrett, had a meltdown because I would not buy the entire stock of chocolate milk. To the ice cream parlor, when Garrett had a meltdown because the milkshake machine was broken. To the movie theater, when Garrett had a meltdown because the speakers were too loud.
I suppose it’s hard not to look shocked, or even stare, when a boy suddenly throws himself on the floor and starts screaming at the top of his lungs. But, I have little patience for those that completely ignore Garrett. In my opinion, that is the most hurtful reaction of strangers.
The worst experience we ever had was at our local grocery store. And it happened on two different occasions.
“I’m not sure if I’m paranoid or what, but I think one of the employees at the store was purposely ignoring Garrett today.” I told the story to my husband, Charlie, later that night.
“Did you talk to the manager?” he asked me.
“And say what? ‘My son asked your employee what his name was and he kept on walking. And working on stocking the shelves like you probably told him to'- How crazy would I sound?”
“There is no reason for anyone to be rude to him.”
Charlie was right, but I hate confrontation. I would rather complain to the entire rest of the world as opposed to actually speaking to the offender. And, there could have been a logical explanation for his behavior. Maybe he didn’t hear Garrett, or didn’t understand what Garrett had asked him. Garrett’s speech is not very clear, especially to people unfamiliar with him.
But the next time Garrett and I went to the store, I could not make any excuses for the man. When we turned the corner, Garrett almost hit him with our cart. He was stocking the shelves and knelling down to reach the bottom one. “Oh, hello!” Garrett loves to talk to people. The man stood up and almost looked afraid of him. Do people really think Garrett is “contagious” in this day and age?
“How are you today, sir?” Garrett asked while reaching out his hand for a handshake. Or maybe he was going in for a hug. Garrett loves to hug people, even strangers. Even after years of practicing “appropriate behavior,” we cannot break him of his habit of hugging everyone. The man contorted backwards and twisted around to the side to avoid Garrett’s touch.
And then, he just turned around and ran. He RAN away. I would have laughed if I had not been so insulted.
“Oh, no.” Garrett moaned. “He’s so, so scared! "
“He’ll be alright,” I assured him.
I noticed that there was another person in the aisle as well. He was standing with a clipboard next to the boxes of canned food that were being shelved. For a brief moment, I thought he was going to apologize. Instead, he turned and walked off in the direction of Garrett’s “friend.”
“The other employee saw what happened?” Charlie asked. I could hardly believe the story myself.
“How could he not? He was standing right next to us.”
“You have got to file a complaint with the store. Garrett is not the only special needs person in this town. What if this guy acts that way towards everyone?”
I made the next trip to the store alone. Just as I parked my car, the bus from our county’s developmental disabilities department pulled up to the front entrance. Although we are still a few years away from Garrett’s high school graduation, I am always interested in the opportunities for adults in our area. I watched the people get off the bus. Suddenly, I recognized Garrett’s “friend” walking down the steps. The man with the clipboard was waiting for him, the way a job coach would wait for his client. The coach waved and Garrett’s friend twisted to avoid his touch. Just the way he avoided Garrett. The coach started talking to him, but the guy bent his head down and took off running…the exact same way he ran away from Garrett. Again, the job coach just turned and walked off in the same direction.
In that moment, I realized that the man was autistic. I had no idea.
The thought had not even crossed my mind.
Not every disability is obvious.
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