Years ago the grocery store was the last place I wanted to go with my son with autism. Now, it’s the place I don’t want to leave.
I followed my son into the tiny grocery, his steps bouncing so high that I thought he might lift right off the ground. He dashed behind the counter and slipped off his coat so that everyone could see the store logo on his shirt. Max is so proud to put on that shirt in the morning, to wake up with purpose. It’s the same eagerness evident in everyone at Max’s day program, a true appreciation for the privilege of working. The other employees in the store burst into smiles as they welcomed Max to work. As I waved goodbye, I gave my son a huge silent cheer and a double thumbs up. I must have looked like one of those over-zealous moms at their child’s first kindergarten play.
Max’s teacher, Kacey, greeted him warmly and the two of them walked toward the refrigerators at the back of the store. Max loves refrigerators. He can identify any refrigerator—anywhere—by the brand, temperature setting, and fan system. He is like the CSI of appliances. I could see Max at the back of the store now holding up a bottle of cleaner and giving the first glass door a few sprays. He was focused, working so quickly that it was like watching a speeded up movie reel. I was mesmerized; I couldn’t leave. And there was Kacey, standing back just enough to let him soar.
To imagine this victory years ago would have been impossible. When Max was younger, he couldn’t even walk through a grocery store. The sights and sounds and smells overwhelmed him. And he was terrified of commercial refrigerators, often melting down before we even walked into a store. He didn’t have the language to explain any of it back then. We stopped going to the grocery…and the pharmacy…and just about everywhere else. For far too many years, autism held us hostage. Even now, nothing is easy about this journey.
But sometimes victories come. Today, at age 25, my son now works in a grocery store.
Then just a few weeks ago, something happened. Kacey couldn’t wait to tell me. It made our years of isolation and struggle come full circle. A customer had come into the store and noticed Max. Actually, it’s hard not to notice someone who works with as much enthusiasm as Tigger. Kacey hadn’t seen anyone watching; just business as usual. But when Max finished his shift, the cashier had something extra for Max.
Apparently, when that customer saw Max working, he stepped in. He approached the counter and handed the cashier a $10 bill. “This is to buy that young man lunch,” he said as he pointed to Max, “Because he is working so hard.”
“Mom?” Max called as he suddenly noticed me hiding in the canned goods isle, watching him work. “Are you going home?”
“Oh…yeah Max,” I said, pulling my emotions together and quickly searching for an excuse for why I was still in the store after dropping him off. “I’m just…looking at something,” I said as I held up a can and pretended to read the label. My vision was blurry with tears as I stepped out of the aisle and waved goodbye to Max again. But he didn’t lose his focus. He just turned back to the job he was doing. After all, he had work to do. It was business as usual.
By Emily Colson
My deepest thanks to all those who help our loved ones with autism serve and work in the community, and to every stranger that steps into the joy of our hard-fought victories.
Photo credit: Kacey O’Gara