It was Christmas day, 2014. My husband and I were planning to visit my best friend, Jan, in the morning and then head to my great uncle’s in the afternoon. We had our son, Sammy, with us.
We got to Jan’s house about 10:00 A.M. There, we opened presents and made cookies. Jan gave Sammy a big, red truck that lit up, complete with a horn that blew.
Sammy was ten. He was doing well. With autism, he didn’t have a great deal of social endurance, so we had to monitor his moods and his fatigue level. Autistic kids often have trouble with new, unpredictable social situations, and we knew this day was probably going to tax him.
By noon, he was still going strong. Jan fed us a delicious lunch of Italian subs, tortellini salad, fruit salad and homemade peanut butter cup brownies.
At around 1:00, we left for Uncle Pete’s.
At Pete’s, we opened more presents. This gifting ritual took about two hours because this side of the family liked to open one gift at a time. Uncle Pete’s great room was packed with people who clapped when Sammy opened a solar system book from his aunt and uncle. He did well though the opening of the rest of the gifts, showing no signs of wanting to leave or retreat into a quiet room where he could recharge. I was proud of him.
Then came Uncle Pete’s famous appetizers — sweet and sour meatballs and his blue cheese ball, which was made from a secret recipe.
While the crowd chowed down in Uncle Pete’s kitchen, Sammy stayed in the great room, playing Angry Birds on his iPod. I was feeling happy because by this time, it was around 3:30, and Sammy hadn’t gotten tired yet. Again, due to his autism, he didn’t have a great deal of social endurance. We’d been out for five and a half hours. He was really doing well.
Dinner, surf and turf, was ready around 6:00. By this time, Sammy was a little distressed. We’d been away from the house for eight hours. Sammy was sitting alone in the living room, listening to music. I went in to check on him.
“I can’t go in there,” he said, referring to the dining room. At this point, he had simply run out of energy. “I’m exhausted, Mommy,” he said.
I again felt proud of him, this time for his ability to articulate his feelings so well. “All right, you can stay in here,” I said, leaving him alone and going into the dining room. “Sammy won’t be joining us for dinner,” I told the crowd.
“Well, that wouldn’t be proper,” Aunt Jane said.
“What do you know?” I thought to myself.
“Sammy is not improper,” I said. “He’s autistic.”
I’m sure I was speaking to a brick wall, but she let it drop.
The crowd ate dinner in silence. Finally, I felt the need to say something. “Aunt Jane, I’m sure you just wanted Sammy to enjoy Uncle Pete’s delicious surf and turf.”
“Well, yes,” she said. “I didn’t mean to criticize.”
“Of course not,” I said.
Soon, the guests relaxed again, and the whole incident appeared to be forgotten. But I would not forget it. This kind of thing happened all too often. People judged Sammy negatively for behavior he couldn’t control. Sammy just needed more “down time” than a typical kid did. At that point, he had just reached the end of his proverbial rope.
Dear Reader, if you ever encounter an autistic child, do not judge him. He is doing the best he can.
The child, and the world, will be better for it.