Autism Unexpected: Me Too: Spotting Autism While Out and About


A while back, I was alone at the grocery store checking out, when a man and his son got in line behind me. He asked me a question about one of my items, then we both went back to what we were doing—me using the self-checkout, him chatting with his son.

Then, from the corner of my eye, I started to notice things. I saw the way the boy was acting, I noticed his stims, and I heard the way the father was talking to him, and it started to become clear to me that this kid had a developmental disability similar to my son Jack’s.

I wanted to say, “Me too! Me too! We’re part of the same club!”

But of course I didn’t, because I think that might have been weird.

We chatted a little more, about the M&Ms the boy had non-verbally convinced his father to buy and the fruit that he was going to try to get his kid to eat first. (Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!)

I smiled at them, and when I left, I told the boy, “Enjoy your M&Ms!”

“Say ‘thank you,’” the man said to the boy, just like I have said to Jack a million times before and in the same tone.

I had said, “Enjoy your M&Ms,” but what I really wanted to say was, “I get it. Your son reminds me of mine. Your son is adorable, and you are so good with him. I’m so glad I met you. I get it.”

I have been in this situation so many times. I have been at dinner and watched a teenager pace the perimeter of the patio, holding a Transformers toy and talking to himself repetitively. I have seen a couple at a pizza parlor, with their adult son who had a body posture so familiar to those who know kids on the spectrum. I have watched a mother at an after-school event trying to rein in her kindergartener who was behaving much the same way my son did when he was that age.

Autism can be an invisible disability—unless you know what to look for. I am so immersed in my family’s quirkiness that I feel like it is written across my face, but when I don’t have my kids with me, I know I look just like everyone else. Sometimes our status as special needs isn’t even evident when my kids are around.

When I run across a special needs family, I feel compelled to join them, to let them know that I am part of that special club, to acknowledge that they are doing a great job. But to do so would be to draw attention to the different, to call them out on their otherness.
So instead I smile and chat with the parent. I interact— but don’t force a response—with the child. I don’t intrude, partly to not stress out a child whom I don’t know and partly to not make the parent feel exposed.

But what I want to say is, “Me too. I get it.”

Originally published at Autism Unexpected on June 14, 2011.