The Look

Yesterday, something happened that I just can’t get out of my head.  It wasn’t earth shattering and overall, it was the most ordinary of days, but I’m still thinking about it today, so I feel the need to share it here on the Red Couch.

It started out just like every other day – kid drop off at school, then a quick trip to the Doctor’s office for a blood sample to test my vitamin D levels (huh – imagine that – low Vitamin D in Minnesota), and then I had to pop into the grocery store as the trio had requested cheeseburgers.  As spring has (fingers crossed) finally sprung here in MN, and we had a crazy busy evening of activities, I was game for grilling their requested menu, and stopped at the store to pick up the few items we needed, which, as luck would have it, were few in number but spaced all over the store.  It was mid-morning on Tuesday, which is kind of a perfect time to go to a grocery store, and as I scrambled up and down the various isles, I ran into the same 3 shoppers more than a few times.  We did the Minnesota nice smile the first 3 times, and then frankly it got a little awkward, but I digress.

It didn’t take long for me to note that there was 1 shopper in the store who had a very frustrated toddler.  Having traveled that path a few years ago – it registered for me as empathy for a parent likely trying to finish shopping close to a young person’s preferred nap time.  And as I ran from baby carrots to buns – all the way across the store, I never actually saw the sad toddler, but I noticed the volume level ramping up in a big way, and now accompanied by some sort of serious pounding which kind of sounded like a hammer.  By now, it was fairly impossible not to notice the situation from all corners of the store and my heart went out to this over-the-edge toddler and his or her parent, who I imagined might be ready to throw in the towel on this unsuccessful shopping trip.  Now in the check-out line, the pounding sound got closer and had become so loud, accompanied by the screaming, that I couldn’t help but turn in their direction as they came around the corner spontaneously out of concern for their safety.

And that’s when I saw them – a young man and his Mom, making their way through the store.  He was likely in the 10-12ish age range, and was not crying at all, but vocalizing in a fairly loud way, jumping & waving his arms in the air, all the while holding a clipboard that contained a list, and occasionally whapping it against the cart – which explained the hammer like noise.  I smiled at them as they passed, crisscrossing the store on their own journey to complete their list, and realized how easy it is to make assumptions about others, and how I hadn’t even considered this could be anything but an overly-tired toddler.

I wanted to explain myself to her, to reach out and let her know that we were members of the same club – parents with special-needs children, and that I noted how positive and calm she was even as her son struggled.  That I’ve been shopping before with a frustrated tween carrying a clipboard, and lived through meltdowns and rage filled outbursts over things like choosing the wrong check-out line.  That I get why she chose to shop on Tuesday morning when only 3 people would be in the store, and that whether her guy was frustrated, communicating in his own personal style and/or ticked that his Mom didn’t want to buy him Lucky Charms, that I noticed her encouraging him, smiling at him and looking at him with eyes filled with love, strength and hope.

I drove home thinking about them, hoping that they had experienced some moments of success and/or progress on whatever goals they were working on that day.  And I also thought about being a Mom of 3, 2 with ASD, and not considering, even for a split second, that the loud noises I heard in that grocery store could be anything but a frustrated toddler, and how I felt like a jerk for being so assumptive.

How many times have I received the nasty looks from other shoppers when E has freaked out in the check-out line about whether we use self-checkout or that I ask him to bag instead of stare at the register?  How many sneers when Ada would dangerously attempt to perch on the edge of the cart or jump off the bags of salt pellets just for fun?  Sometimes, they are bold enough to say out loud that they think I’m a crappy parent, but most of the time, it’s in the eyes – the all-knowing “this parent clearly doesn’t have rules or accountability and her kid is proof” look when I guide a screaming-12-year-old out of the store. It’s easy to be assumptive – my kids don’t look different, and there are crappy parents in the world.  Heck – I really may be a crappy parent, but if so, I’m a crappy parent with rules and accountability!  In the end, I realized yesterday that I’m no different than my sneering friends, and clearly I have plenty of room for growth in this department.  So even though it’s April, and I feel about as aware and accepting of autism as can be, my grocery store experience reminded me what it’s like to sit on the other side of the table.

Last night, we all got to attend a presentation about making everyday tasks more fun for your family.  All 3 of our kiddos asked for a clipboard to write on, and for some reason, that made me smile . . .


A Beautiful Day

Sometimes beauty is found in unexpected places or in moments and memories that will live on with us always. In our family, with 3 kiddos, 2 on the autism spectrum, when a day gets particularly ugly, I’ll occasionally whisper to Tom “well, at least they’re attractive”. The truth is my funky sense of humor helps me navigate the more challenging days, and while I’m certain the awkward, adolescent days are looming for my trio, for now their smiles can usually brighten even our difficult days.

One expected place to find beauty is when you get the chance to meet a Pageant Queen. Miss Minnesota, the lovely and talented Rebecca Yeh, is truly beautiful – inside and out. Rebecca has been serving as our Minnesota Community Ambassador for Autism Speaks for the past year and has graciously been helping out as much as she is able with her crazy schedule! Rebecca’s brother, Phil, is on the autism spectrum, and that inspired Rebecca to choose Autism acceptance and awareness as her platform during the Miss America pageant.

So, a couple of months ago, in the middle of our never-ending winter, there was an evening when I trudged through the snow in below zero temps to attend an Autism Speaks committee meeting. I had considered cancelling that day, as my mind was preoccupied, and my heart was just not into it at that moment. Poor Elliott had been going through a number of challenges as he acclimated to middle school, and I felt sad and a bit lost in my thoughts. Rebecca, who looked lovely as usual (especially compared to me in my yoga pants and oversized winter boots) was genuine and supportive when I shared some of E’s challenges during our pre-meeting chat, and how we were doing our best to help him. She recalled her feelings from middle school – trying to figure out who she was, trying to fit in, being so proud of Phil when he accomplished something that had been difficult for him, and then sometimes being embarrassed when awkward moments or situations would pop up.

For some reason, her words just hit home for me. I suddenly realized that while E’s challenges were real, in so many ways, they were the same types of challenges that every middle school kid faces – with his own personal spin, of course. Rebecca then shared how meaningful her interactions with students have been during her Miss Minnesota reign, and I realized then and there that I wanted her to share her message with the schools in our community, and how glad I was that I had attended the meeting that night – yoga pants and all.

First up was my daughter, Ada’s, school, Northview Elementary. Ada is a First Grader with an amazing teacher who just “gets” it. Mrs. E arranged to have Rebecca share her message of acceptance for the differences we all share, and even asked if Ada would like to introduce her. (Proud Mom alert). Ok – I must share that while Ada is more than a little outspoken at home – especially when disagreements arise with her brothers – she tends to be very quiet and shy at school. When I asked her if she wanted to give it a try, she only paused for a moment before excitedly agreeing. She practiced diligently for days, and I knew she was genuinely vested when she told me she wanted to wear a dress for Rebecca’s visit (Ada would almost always choose to wear teenage-mutant-ninja-turtle attire before wearing a dress!) When the morning arrived, and all her first grade friends started pouring in, I could see her visibly tense up, and I must admit I was worried it might be a bit too much for her. However, when the moment arrived, Rebecca kindly helped to lower the microphone to Ada’s level, and she spoke softly but clearly, “please welcome Miss Minnesota” with a smile as bright as the summer sun.

It was just as lovely watching Rebecca interact with Ada’s classmates – sure, they had fun questions about her crown, and how she manages to walk in high heels, but they also spoke so proudly about the ways they differed from one another, and what made each of them special and unique. When her violin came out, it was a whole new kind of amazing. Rebecca shared how she had been quite shy as a child, and how her violin helped her “connect” with others. Then, the kids shouted out a bunch of different emotions, and Rebecca would musically create that feeling using her violin (“Jaws” was a favorite!)

As I stood in the back, watching all of Ada’s classmates fully engaged and excited, I realized that while her words were eloquent and perfectly suited, that her “connection” to the students with her violin was even more powerful. They all smiled for pictures with Rebecca and were excited to share their unique and special qualities with her, and as I watched my Ada eagerly participating and sharing as well, I couldn’t help but realize the true beauty of the moment.Miss MN with Mrs. E's class

Later that day, Rebecca spoke with young adults in the Transition Program of our district. They, too, were enamored by her crown and her shoes (which were awesome) but when the violin came out, it was pure magic. It provided an open door to talk about many relevant topics, and as lots of the students were music fans, tested Rebecca’s knowledge of songs from “Star Wars” to “Frozen”, with a side of “Michael Jackson” just for fun.

After her talk, Rebecca posed for lots of photos, signed some autographs, and chatted with the students. At one point, there was quite a line, and a young man who was patiently waiting to meet Rebecca asked me if I would share my birthday with him. I did, and then he opened his notebook, asked me how to spell my name, and reported that I was number somewhere between 4-5,000 in his book (I’m not so good with numbers but work with me here). He told me that he’d been keeping a birthday notebook for many years, and then proceeded to share with me some notable people who share my birthday. We chatted about a number of things, and while it was different than it is at my house where we have all learned to say “topic change” between subjects, we had a really fun conversation before it was his turn to pose with Rebecca.

My exchange with that young man was my moment of unexpected beauty that day, and a life lesson I will carry with me always. You see, my Elliott is kind of obsessed with birthdays. Sometimes, it’s hard for Elliott to think of ways to get to know people or converse with them, and birthday chat has helped him connect with others in new ways. Often, it’s a bit awkward, as E needs a bit of polish on his opening line and his frequent use of “topic change” during conversation could use a some fine tuning, but once E knows your birthday, your name goes on his calendar, and he will never forget it! He has hundreds memorized, and soon, my guess is that he’ll need to start carrying his own birthday notebook. I’ll admit there are times when I wish he would move beyond birthdays, and expand his “getting to know you” repertoire, but when I mention that to him, he tells me “Birthdays are my deal, Mom”.

But just as Rebecca shared with the students that day, we all have our own unique qualities and ways of connecting with others. This young man could not have been more charming. While his birthday notebook was a way for him to start a conversation, he was so fun and engaging to talk with that I’m still thinking of our exchange today. Soon, I started to wonder what life might have been like for this young man when he was 13? Maybe his birthday notebook exchanges were slightly awkward now and then, and maybe there was a time that his conversation openers needed a bit of polish? Maybe there was a time that his Mom was amazingly proud of his many accomplishments, yet still hoped that connecting with other people would become easier for her son? Maybe, I realized then and there that his birthday notebook was as powerful a communication tool as Rebecca’s violin, and that meeting this young man has opened my eyes to the beauty of connecting in your own way.

Rebecca’s beautiful smile in the photos she took with the students that day will be a fun reminder of the opportunity they all had to meet Miss Minnesota, and I believe the beauty of her music will inspire many to connect with the world in their own way.

And if anyone would like to know when Rebecca’s birthday is, I know two great guys who can help you out . . .