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Are you aware? How about your kids?

September 30, 2012

How about their grandmother?

Aware of what, you ask?  Let me tell you…

I just had a horrible encounter with a child and her grandmother at the local playground.  8 hours later, I am still furious and disgusted.  In fairness, some of my antipathy is reflected back at me.  I made a bad situation worse.  I won no Father Of The Day award today.

It had been a beautiful day so far here.  Bright blue skies, fresh breeze carrying the scent of autumn, cool temps in the mid 60’s–a great day to be outside.  Which was a good thing, too, because Alex wasn’t too keen on staying indoors.  He had been itching to go outside pretty much since he got dressed this morning.  In his non-verbal way of requesting, he will either bring me a photo of said item or just stand by the front door–that’s Alex code for “what I want is outside”.  Going outside could mean he wants to run around the yard, or get into the wagon, or perhaps go for a bike ride.  Or maybe go in the car…

Well I am no pushover, but…Alex’s sometimes incessant whining is like the sound of nails on a chalkboard to me.  And when he peppers his impatience to the fulfillment of his demands with quick jabs of his rock hard fists to his head, it gets a reaction from people, including his dad.  Lucky for Alex, I was ready to go.  I’ve learned to dress as quickly as I possibly can each morning, and to wolf down my breakfast just the same so I can devote my attention to him.  Usually Kat gets to sleep in on Sunday mornings, and Drew does his own thing in the morning, too, so it’s pretty much up to me to keep Alex placated.  Today was no different.

Suffice to say, Alex and I went outside plenty.  He, however, seemed more edgy today than in recent weeks.  A little easier to upset.  I’m not going to go into the “how’s” or “why’s” of that right now–it’s not directly relevant to what happened.

But what did happen was this:  I took the kids and Kat in the car to check out our local park district arboretum.  We’ve been there many times before.  It’s located on a generously sized park replete with pond, ball diamonds, walking paths and a most well-equipped playground.  And the arboretum is nice.  Trimmed flowers, fountains and more, a toy train set making endless loops, even white doves in a big cage.  The hours of operation are 10am to 3pm on Sundays.

I did not know this.  We arrived at 3:10pm.  Strike one.  Alex, already restive and seeing the locked door, melted down into a puddle of screaming, crying and fist flailing.  Kids with autism tend not to handle denial of routine or something promised very well.  They can’t always just “go with the flow”, as typical kids learn to do at an early age.  Alex was again breaking out the highlighter to point this out to me.

While Kat took Drew to explore the portion of arboretum that wasn’t closed, I attempted to redirect Alex.  Redirecting is a term I have heard Alex’s teachers and therapists using often as a strategy to essentially distract him.  It works, too, most of the time.  With more than a little prodding, I was able to shepherd Alex, sobs and all, toward the playground.

This playground has one feature that Alex loves–a rigid, chair-shaped plastic swing.  From what I am told, these swings have been appearing at many new or renovated playgrounds.  They allow kids that don’t have the strength or coordination to sit on a regular swing or who might be too big to be lowered into the confines of a baby swing.  They are perfect for Alex.

Alex has shown great affinity towards riding in a swing all his life.  We even have one inside our home just for Alex’s needs.  He seems to like that feeling of pressure from the centrifugal force and the repetitious back-and-forth.  I’ve pushed him for what must have added up to days so far in his life.  I’m completely okay with that, by the way.

As we walked across the park towards the playground, I could see this single swing being used.  Not one of the other 7 swings, just the one Alex prefers.  No big deal, I thought.  By the time we get to the playground, Alex will be fully calmed down and the swing will be empty.  A few minutes on the swing and he’d be great for the rest of the afternoon.  That was the plan.  I followed closely behind Alex as he approached the swingset, the wood chips crunching beneath our feet.  I made sure that he didn’t get too close to the pendulous red plastic seat.

The playground was packed with little kids and at least 8 moms, each with a stroller and a toddler or two.  These ladies sat on benches surrounding the swings, chatting with each other in Slavic, Polish or Russian.  But not much English.  Which is just fine with me.  I love the diversity of our neighborhood.

None of this was important to Alex.  All he was focused on was a little girl, probably 5 or so, still occupying his favorite swing.  She had long, flowing curly brunette hair and wore a tidy, fancy, bright pink outfit with a coordinating faux fur vest.  Definitely not something her mommy purchased for her at Target, I thought to myself.  She was being pushed back and forth by what looked like her grandmother, a gray haired lady speaking broken English to her with a thick eastern European accent.  The entire time the girl clutched a stuffed animal beneath her left arm, a large black and white striped tiger.  And she wasn’t even smiling.

I tried to keep Alex away from the swing while it was in motion, telling him he would have to wait a little while longer until it was his turn.  As far as Alex was concerned, it was his turn.  Hell, to me, it was Alex’s turn too.  From when we first walked toward the swing to now had been at least 7 minutes.  But still the girl swung back and forth.  Finally, Alex had enough waiting and broke down again, fists flying into his face, tears of anguish and disbelief spilling out of his eyes.

I pleaded with him to calm down, to relax–loudly now.  Loud enough so the girl and more importantly, the grandmother, could hear that, yes, there was at least one other inhabitant of this planet that might be interested in using–nay, sharing–that device that she was using.  This just pissed Alex off more.  He collapsed onto the dirty wood chips.  Now pretty much everyone, child and adult, was looking at us.  Strike two…

After what seemed to be an eternity, I could hear from behind me the grandmother saying “Layla, time to let someone else use the swing…”  I turned to see her slowing the motion of the swing while I scooped up my now hysterical Alex.  I looked at the girl and held my breath as I expected her to obey her grandmother and slide out of the seat to allow Alex a turn and finally calm himself down.

It never happened.  The little girl just sat there.  She said nothing.  She didn’t move.

The grandmother turned to me with surprise in her voice and inexplicably said “I cannot get her to move!  She will not get out!”  Now I was the one who was out of patience.  I turned to the girl in probably the most measured but stern voice she has ever heard and begged, “Layla, may my son please have a turn on the swing?”  Alex remained, writhing in my arms.  My words dripped with venom.  With a self-centered, dismissive turn of her head, the girl just looked away from us.  Again, she said nothing.

I was blown away.  For a split second I wanted to explode at the little spoiled brat and her spineless grandmother.  Seething, I simply said “Okay…Alex…I guess we will just have to go home then.  They don’t want to share.”  Everyone in the playground heard that.  Strike three, Dave.  You’re out.  I lifted Alex into my arms and walked back across the park toward my car.  There was probably steam coming out of my ears at this point.

I’ve been thinking about my actions ever since I left the park…how I could have handled the situation differently, better.

For one thing, I should have known the arboretum was closed.  Alex wouldn’t have been disappointed.

And when the girl on the swing wouldn’t budge, I would have pulled out the “a” word:  autism.

Now, I do not like to be in public telling each and every bystander that the reason my son is the combined personification of a bumble bee, hummingbird and hyena is because he has autism.  Frankly, I would have hoped that people would already know.  But, since Alex appears normal physically, I can no longer make that assumption.  I will have to say it to everyone–including Grandmother Clueless and her stuck-up granddaughter Layla.

I used to think that the bumper stickers with the slogan “autism awareness” were kind of redundant, or irrelevant.  I mean, who doesn’t know about autism in this day and age?

I don’t anymore.

And for all of you–my friends and family who know what autism is, and helped support Alex by donating to the Answers for Autism walk last weekend, I thank you.  This awareness is crucial.  The lack of it bitch-slapped me today.

From → Alex, Autism, Family Stuff

  1. Nobody is perfect, David. You can’t expect it from yourself. You were polite enough (hey, you didn’t slap the girl OR her grandma) and no long-term harm was done. *hug*

  2. Julia permalink

    This sounds like a very hard day. And it is difficult to give other people the benefit of the doubt in such a situation, but just like Alex looks like a neurotypical child, there is a possibility that Layla had issues of her own (besides just being an entitled bitch.) Not every day is a parent of the day award day, but the love and tenacity you show to do it day in and day out gets you Dad of the Year for sure.

  3. Brian permalink

    A challenging day to say the least. Don’t sell yourself short on the strength, patience and resilience of Dad of the year, Dave. You set the bar so very high for us all, long ago. We’re endlessly proud of you.

  4. Rhonda Jenkins permalink

    David you handled the situation in a perfect manner. Bringing up autism to that grandmother would not have made a difference. You would have probably been met with shrugged shoulders and a blank stare. Although walking away with no rude comments was difficult,(I applaud you) it was really the only choice. Alex is truly lucky to have such wonderful parents as you and Kat to face these challenges with.

  5. Vic permalink

    Don’t be too hard on yourself my good friend. I can’t imagine the learning curve you have progressed along. You’re right, things could have been handled better. But then again, you handled it better than most people likely would have, myself included. I have an appreciation for what autism means more than you can believe because of your outstanding example as a GREAT daddy. Chin up pal. You’re a good man, one of the best…

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