Written By Beth Clay
I desperately try not to think about it. I enjoy blissful ignorance whenever I can get away with it. But I’m going to be honest on this. I’m going to fling the cabinet doors wide open and let you see the mess that is inside.
Here it is.
My 15 year old son with autism is no longer a cute little boy.
The loss of that little boy cuteness has resulted in the grownup look of my son — the look that we are currently experiencing, and have been for a while. He physically looks like a young man, yet at times has the behavior and tantrums more typical of a little boy.
And I would like to ignore it.
Long ago when Cooper was little and we were in the middle of a multitude of therapies, we had a college student working for us. She was great with Cooper. She also had an older brother with severe disabilities. He had many challenges and often had undesirable behaviors that drew attention in public. There was one piece of information she shared with me that has become very valuable.
Her parents always made sure her brother looked good.
She explained further that her parents felt that when he was in public, strangers often only saw the worst of him: his behavior. Therefore, her parents wanted to give him every possible chance to be looked on favorably by those around him — the people who simply had no clue. So her parents made sure he was always nicely dressed, always clean shaven and his hair was trimmed and neat. They were not trying to hide or change him. They simply wanted to give him a shot at a good first impression, a chance to be liked by others.
It’s what we all want for our children.
At the time when she shared this information, my child was cute and small, and for the most part I just found this interesting. In truth, I suppose I found it interesting with a hint of indignation. I mean, how shallow does that sound? I am generally of the “you are who you are” school of thought. It what’s on the inside that truly matters after all.
Yet, looking back and knowing what I know now, I had a little bit of that naïve “my child is still cute and adorable even when he is throwing a fit” thing going on. I lacked experience in the real world, the one that I am in now.
That world is not always kind, accepting and tolerant of those that are different — those that are behaving differently.
Yes, people stare and comment when our small humans are throwing fits and acting socially unacceptable in public. We rail and complain about the injustice of it all. “How dare they judge what they do not know?” We scoop them up, drag them out, and protect them.
Then they grow into large humans, and we have to accept the realities that accompany that inevitable physical growth: the reality that a large, man-size boy having a meltdown in public draws a lot of attention. People look, they stare, and yes, they still judge. Yet, we can’t scoop them up, drag them out or protect them.
And things begin to shift…
When our children are young, their attention-drawing behavior brings judgment on us – the parents. As parents we are the ones who are critiqued and condemned. However, when our children grow and take on the physical appearance of adults, they are judged; they are the recipients of the harsh comments, the looks and the stares.
We realize our ability to protect them has shrunk proportionately to their growth.
I now have some experience. I have seen people stare and even be afraid of my child– my 6ft tall 270 pound young man. When his anxiety builds and he starts to get agitated, when he speaks in a loud high-pitched tone while standing on his tip toes and flailing and flapping his hands about (in case you don’t know this is an undesirable behavior that attracts attention in public). It’s an intimidating sight.
Honestly, if all eyes are going to be on him…well then, we want him to look his best. I desperately want to do whatever I can to help him make a good impression, for people to like him and accept him.
Is appearance everything? Of course not.
Do I now see the importance of my child, who is already fighting an uphill battle, looking his best while doing it? Yes. Yes, I do.
We have to face reality…and twice a week, we have to shave it.
About the Author: Beth Clay is currently living in a small town in Arkansas with her husband, four of their five children and their dog Fatcake. She is the mother of one incredible teenage boy, born right in the middle of four girls and diagnosed with Autism at the age of 18 months. She writes about living their lives with Autism at Speaking in Grace.