My apology to the mother in Walmart and things I wished my 20-something-year-old, ignorant self had known about autism
Back when my husband (then boyfriend or maybe fiance) and I were living in Toronto and childless (10 years ago or so) we used to shop at our local Walmart in the Stockyards. We would often be there shopping at the same time as a woman with her young children. This is my apology to her.
Dear Woman in Walmart,
I want to apologize to you for not understanding. I want to apologize for criticizing your parenting, for making comments about your child that I had no business making at the time.
When we would see you and your children at the store, your daughter, who was not more than 7 or 8, would wander away from you, making high pitched noises. I would watch as she would yell and scream and at times and it seemed you had no control of her. She would pull things off the shelf, or stand in the middle of the aisle screaming if you took something away from her. I would roll my eyes and my husband and I would make remarks about how badly behaved she was. How we would not be that kind of parent, oblivious to our child’s rude behaviour that was disrupting the shopping experience of others. We would talk about your lack of parenting skills and tsk tsk you.
I am ashamed and appalled to admit to this behaviour. You see, I now understand your daughter was autistic. I understand that what she was doing was simply stimming and communicating in the only way she knew how, in a place that overloaded her senses and caused her great pain.
I can empathize now, because I now have a daughter with autism. She is high functioning and doesn’t often melt down or cause a scene in public, but it has happened and I have been at the receiving end of the comments and the looks. When they happen, I am angered by the fact that people are so ignorant, are so unaware and uneducated. Then I humbly remind myself that I WAS one of those people years ago.
I knew of autism, but I didn’t KNOW autism. Now I do, and now I wish I could take back every comment, every look and every bad thought I had about your parenting skills. When we were going through the diagnosis process for my daughter and we started reading up on autism, I looked at my husband one night and said, “Do you remember the mother in Walmart.. ” I did not need to continue for he stopped me and with shame in his eyes, said “Yes. I do.”
I wish I had known then what I know now, for I would have gone up to you and given you a smile, a look, some kind of encouragement, or an offer to help, because now I understand. I understand how going shopping is not easy or fun.
Autism has changed our lives in more ways than I can count. We can no longer just do something on a whim, everything has to be planned and carefully executed. We have to tell our daughter where we are going, for how long and who will be there. She needs to see pictures of things ahead of time to ease her anxiety. We can’t plan more than a couple of things in a day and our home life is all about schedules, to do lists and timers. We have a sensory-friendly home and need to keep chaos to a minimum; it’s all about structure and routine. Autism has cost us friends. We had a vision of how our life with our daughter would be and autism has changed that. We were social butterflies. Our daughter cannot handle that lifestyle. I can only imagine the vision you had and had your life changed as a result.
I now know you were incredibly brave and strong to be able to go out and do your shopping, knowing what most people were likely saying about you and your family or your parenting skills. That takes some kind of courage and I applaud you for that. I now know I am sure you were doing the best you could and being the best parent you could be for your daughter.
You have had more of an effect on me than you know, and I think you are partly the reason why I blog and the reason that I spend a lot of my time as an advocate trying to educate and raise awareness.
April 2 is World Autism Awareness Day and it is why I have chosen to apologize publicly to you for the ignorant and shameful way I acted. It is my hope that with this letter I can change maybe just one person’s awareness and education of autism and the effect it has on our children and the lives of those around them.
From the bottom of my heart, I am sorry,