A few years ago, I read a Facebook Post from a young woman in her twenties whom I knew, griping about being in a restaurant and watching horrified as a child of around 6 or 7 threw an all-out, on the floor temper tantrum while the mother seemingly did nothing about it but talk to the child. She couldn’t believe a mother could be that irresponsible or raise such a bratty kid, and she quickly had many people agreeing with her. I had to chime in and ask if she had ever considered that the child might have some kind of disability that you couldn’t see just by looking at him? Maybe the child was autistic and there was truly nothing else that parent could have done at the time that wouldn’t have made things worse. Now, it could have just been a bratty kid, but odds are, I believe, there was something else there.
You see, I’ve been that Mom. I’ve been the one with an inconsolable child in a public space. I’ve been the one whose child refuses to share toys or kicks doors when frustrated. My oldest son has a “wonderful” combination of Asperger’s (an autism spectrum disorder), Attention Deficit Disorder, and a language disorder. While he is now a thriving college student, in his early years he had no way to understand or express his feelings. He didn’t know how to interact with children his own age. To look at him, you would think he was just an average, healthy child. No one would see him throw his spoon on the floor at the restaurant because he was really hungry and didn’t know how long it would be before the food arrived and think, “Oh, that poor child must not be able to communicate his thoughts.” Even my own parents, who are both in special education, could not recognize this at an early age and would get upset with his behavior. If the experts can’t see the invisible disorder, how can the average man on the street be expected to see it?
Over the years, I grew to tune out the comments and the looks. I quietly stewed when I found out another parent at a camp-out with my son had made the comment “Run, Forrest, Run!” when my son walked by. I now have three children with “invisible disabilities”. Two of my adoptive children have attachment disorders due to very chaotic early childhoods. I have to constantly keep their teachers informed of what is happening in their lives so if they emotionally shut down or go off the proverbial deep end in school, they will know why and we can handle things away from the eyes of their peers. People look at me as though I am a unicorn if I tell them of my children’s difficulties. I have had people say, “Oh, I just thought he was kind of an odd duck” or “Oh, I could never imagine your child having an all-out fit of rage, she’s always so sweet around me”. If a child has a visible marker of a disability- he’s in a wheelchair, she has Down’s Syndrome, he has hearing aids or walks with a cane- people give you sympathy, they want to help. If they can’t see it, it must not exist and you are simply a bad parent. And you can tell when someone is thinking that. I can always tell when someone’s thinking that.
My hope is that as education and awareness about disabilities increase, especially when it comes to autism spectrum disorders, there will be far more comments of “What can I do to help?” and “Your child is so lucky to have a mom like you”, and far less glares of disdain and whispered comments about what a lousy parent someone must be to have a child like “that”. As the saying goes, “Judge not, less you be judged”. We can’t see into a person’s soul, so I hope someday everyone will just have a little heart.