The Way You Look at Him
I see how they look at him.
My 20-year-old son Mickey sits cross-legged on the bench in the neurologist’s office. A teenage girl and her mother sit catty-corner. I see the girl’s eyes widen, and she smiles at him. She’s eyeing him as if she thinks he’s cute. Can she possibly be—flirting?
Mickey doesn’t look at her. Instead, he opens an oversized workbook called “Social Skills Activities for Special Children.” It’s left over from sixth grade, but he still loves it. He reads aloud, laughing a little too loudly. The girl glances at her mother: the look they exchange is unmistakable. I can practically see a cartoon thought bubble forming above her head:
What’s wrong with him?
The girl’s flirtatious smile fades to pity.
A nurse appears. Mickey covers his ears. He crouches like a school kid in a duck-and-cover drill. “Don’t say my name!” He’s afraid the nurse is about to call him; he’s been fretting about this for weeks. He’s not happy being here. He hates having to have yet another EEG. I’ve promised over and over they won’t call his name. As soon as we checked in I made sure to tell the receptionist.
The girl whispers something to her mother. I wonder why she’s here. This isn’t an ordinary waiting room. She’s not here for a flu shot. This is the Epilepsy Center. There are children here wearing seizure helmets.
Mickey laughs to himself again. The girl darts sidewise glances. Then from across the room, I hear a man’s irate and sibilant hiss. “Shush!”
I bristle. Yes, Mickey is too loud. Sometimes he has trouble modulating his volume.
“Quiet voice, please.” I pat the air in that downward motion that signals him to speak more softly.
Welcome to Autism Awareness Month.
Yes, it’s April again, that cruelest month. The one where everyone talks a good game about Autism Awareness.
But what I’m most acutely aware of today is how people look at him. Still. After all those blue light bulbs and puzzle piece car magnets and T-shirts and rubber bracelets. I’m painfully aware of the stares. And the trying-not-to stares. I don’t know if Mickey notices, but I do. The way they look at my son. It pierces my armor, slicing straight to the heart.
Maybe they’re just staring because people do that. Anything out of the ordinary catches the eye; it’s a primitive itch. Twenty years ago, I might have looked too.
I don’t want to care so much that they stare.
But I do.
I’m the one who always tells other parents to ignore the stares. Who cares what strangers think? I say.
But I lie. It still makes me shrivel.
On a good day I tell myself that those stares are actually ones of understanding and support. Other days, the looks feel accusatory: Why can’t you just control him?
But what cuts the most is the welling up with tears, there-but-for-the-grace-of God-go-I Tragedy Look.
Because here’s what those people aren’t seeing. Mickey’s sweetness. His sideways hugs. His silly sense of humor. The joyful way he confides, “I have delicious news.” How fiercely I love him.
So here we are again, back at April and Autism Awareness Month. In yet another doctor’s waiting room. If I were a bigger person maybe I’d view this as a teachable moment; start a conversation about autism.
Instead, I wait quietly for Mickey’s name to be not-called. Silently, the nurse appears and gestures; we stand. “Come, honey,” I say. “It’s your turn,” and we traipse past the staring girl, and her mother, and the man who hissed at my son.
I’m tired of wearing ribbons. Awareness? We’ve been working at that for years. What about acceptance?
Because I see the way you still look at him.