I knew he was too big, but only by a few years, and a few more inches. The bright red yardstick on the side of the ball pit made it pretty clear that my then 14 year old was to be sidelined. As I let go of my son’s hand, I imagined people looking at Max as if he were King Kong swinging from the top of the McDonalds Play Land tower while all the other moms and tiny children stood below covering their mouths in silent screams.
But some things are worth the risk.
Max took his position and squatted at the base of the play structure while I stood close enough to intervene. Max grabbed the sides of the slide and called up, “Anybody there?” He bounced on his knees with anticipation. And then, just as he was hoping, little socked-feet poked through the end of the slide. Several small children with their hair tousled and floating with static spilled onto the padded flooring in front of him. It was like a giant vending machine. Max leaped into the air waiving his arms with delight. Laughter filled his whole body and his red cheeks plumped as if they might explode.
I couldn’t help but laugh with him. We were having more fun than anyone else there. Other mothers were sitting at plastic tables chatting with one another, occasionally handing their children French fries and sips of juice or negotiating an exit strategy.
Suddenly, a woman stood right in front of me. I didn’t see her coming. She stared straight into my wide eyes and asked, “What’s wrong with the boy?” I took a deep gasp of stale onion air and realized she was talking about Max. A thousands responses flashed through my mind, and not all of them pretty. I desperately wanted her to walk away, to let us be, but she wasn’t moving.
My mind raced. We’ve met a lot of people on this journey of autism. Some have put me at ease with their gentle smiles and kind words. But then there are the others – the ones who stare far to long, or simply say the wrong thing. As it turns out, people with autism are not the only ones who could benefit from social skills training.
I studied this woman looking for clues. Did she know her choice of words cut to my heart? Did she mean to hurt me, or insult Max? And really, was my son’s diagnosis any of her business anyway? But as I think about that moment all these years later, I wonder if her poor attempt to connect was actually better than no attempt at all. At least she was asking. At least she approached me. I’d rather have someone say the wrong thing than to stare from a distance in fear.
Finally, without a choice but to respond to this woman, I summoned strength and a super-sized order of grace. “Nothing,” I smiled as Max’s laughter filled the McDonald’s play land. “Nothing is wrong with my son.”
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