“No!” Mikey shouted at me, sitting on metal step at the park. “I will NOT PLAY!”
Around me, the glancing began. A glance at him, a glance at me. I could feel the change in the air as the other parents’ conversations got suddenly quieter, ears perked up, judgments started.
A mother scooted her toddler away from Mikey and to another slide, shot me a look: get control of your kid.
I wanted to go down closer to Mikey, but Sam, at two, was oblivious to danger. Every three seconds I was blocking him from a six foot drop onto wood chips. These days all I did was pull him back from the park’s edges, while begging Mikey to play at all.
And get stared at.
When you have the only kid at the park not playing, and making a scene over it, you get stares.
It was time to bring out the big guns. “If you just play, just for a little bit, I will get you a McDonalds chocolate shake,” I yelled across the park to him.
That kid is being a brat because his mother doesn’t even know that McDonalds is bad for him.
“No!” he yelled.
“Ok, fine,” I said, “no shake.”
“Then just come play!” I shouted back.
We had just moved to a new state a few weeks before. We were exploring parks and playzones every day…but making a scene more often than not, with one or both kiddos ending in a tantrum or a meltdown.
At the park, Mikey’s wailing and complaining went on and on until I gave up and dragged them both home—Sam shouting now, because he wanted to stay.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do!” I told my husband that night. “I feel like I need a shirt that says ‘Autism Mom’ so people will stop staring!”
“Well get one,” he said. “Maybe it will help.”
And so I did.
The first day I wore it, Mikey actually had one of his worst public meltdowns to date. I had to carry his big five-year-old body for what seemed like miles out of a mall, him trying to hit and kick me the whole way.
Read my shirt! I yelled in my head to the gawkers. There’s your answer! You try this for a day and come back and judge me again.
And, honestly, it worked. No rude comments. People looked away.
And so, the shirt became my shield. Parks, splash pads, mall play areas. Back off, I said with my shirt. Don’t even think about judging us.
I knew there was the underbelly. I shouldn’t care, I shouldn’t label my kids in public, I should be above it all. And I wished I was, but I wasn’t yet. The looks were humiliating. I needed my shield to back people away.
“I like your shirt,” said a young woman at the park one day with her infant. “I used to be a behavior tech for autistics before I had my baby. I loved it.” She was kind; we talked about local resources.
“I like your shirt,” said a pretty young redhead, sitting next to me on the bench at a splash pad. “I’m a caretaker for this boy. He has autism. Let me know if you need a babysitter! I would love to help!”
“I like your shirt,” said a sweet older lady at the mall. “My grandson in Ohio has autism. I do a rosary for him every day. I’ll do one for you, too.” She and her husband walked off, waving back towards me.
“I like your shirt,” said a burly dad in his bathing suit at the splash park, holding his son. “This little guy got diagnosed a few months ago.”
The boy, maybe three, looked at me with bright blue eyes and babbled something sweetly incoherent.
His dad looked off beyond the spraying water and screaming kids, towards the brown line of mountains on the horizon. “I keep hoping I’m going to wake up one day and none of it’ll be real, you know? He’ll be a football star, popular, like I was.”
I breathed in hard.
I wanted to hug them both in their wet swimsuits and say, me too, me too.
I wanted to erase that hollow look in the dad’s eyes.
Instead I said, “My shirt is broken.”
Because my shirt, meant to back people off, meant to silently defend my children and my parenting, meant as both an education and a screw you to those who would judge—my shirt, instead, was building bridges, connecting me, and reminding me that all we really want, at the end of the day, is someone who pushes our shield aside, gives a look of understanding to the real us underneath.
Says, “Hey, I like your shirt.”