“The other day, we broke free from pandemic and winter isolation to go to our community pool.
When we arrived, there were only two other people. It had been a long six months since my autistic son Finn, now seven, had been able to be in his happy place.
Water and sunshine. Freedom.
A place where mom doesn’t have to hold a hand every step of the way as long as she guards the entrance gate. A place where black steel bars ensure his safety from elopement and mom can sit while watching her Baby Bird splash, jump in, and play.
All was well as my teen daughter Lilliana,and my older son Landon, along with some of her friends, enjoyed the nice break.
I was even delighted to see my daughter and her besties, including both of her brothers.
Then, an arrival of a boy a little older than Landon shifted my focus.
I went from an afternoon of ease as I witnessed my youngest son explore and show off his new swimming skills to being on edge the rest of the day and feeling the need to protect him.
‘I mean it, kid!’
‘Give me my shoes!’
‘I’m not playing!’
What started off as my son gleefully trying on a pair of oversized Nike slides that were sitting by the poolside edge, turned into what sounded like the beginning of a schoolyard fight.
The angry tone, and the way you came at my son shouting at him was disheartening. I darted over and reminded you he’s just a child.
I felt the need to explain… ‘He has autism.’ There, I said it. Always having to defend my son for his actions.
Were the shoes his? No.
But to him it was no different than the way he tries on his Daddy’s shoes at home. My son is curious about everything…he’s a learner at heart.
What does it look like up close? He may put an object directly to his eyes and nose and visually stim.
What does it feel like when he picks it up? Is it heavy or light? Does it have any ridges or texture he can run his fingers over?
What if he puts it on his foot? What does it look like? Does it fit? Does he like the look and the feel? Does it feel heavy? Will it fulfill a sensory need he has and give him a deep pressure input?
What if he puts it in the water? Will it float? Will it sink to the bottom? How long will it take? What will the object look like underwater with his goggles on?
These are all various reasons as to why my son may have picked up someone else’s shoes and put them on his feet.
Now, even at seven, he is 90 lbs and will probably be the tallest sibling. So maybe he’s already ‘outgrowing cute‘ like my dear friend, Jess Ronne says.
Would it have made a difference? If he was a toddler doing the same thing? Would you have yelled like that at a baby?
It only took a moment of me talking to Finn to get your shoes back. I could tell you felt offended and righteous in your behavior.
It didn’t surprise me really, I knew who you were. Stories with your name have been heard in my house with the same type of theme. You have bullied my older son on the bus and plenty of other younger kids as well.
You had plenty of younger siblings with you, too. I wondered how you would feel if someone had yelled at them like that. And also, what was very noticeable was the lack of supervision. All of you there with no adult.
While I was there to help teach my children social boundaries, etiquette, and kindness, there was absolutely no one there holding you to the same standards.
We continued to stay for hours. I knew it made you uncomfortable. Having an adult calling you out on your behaviors as I watched you and others break community pool rules. Unsafe play. Acting like you owned the place.
It didn’t surprise me when your younger siblings wanted nothing to do with my son. He asked them to play, he hoped they could share rafts and Peppa Pig toys. One of the girls ran away from him. It made me so sad.
Even when the older girls starting playing with Finn’s toys, I said nothing except, ‘It’s okay.’ They didn’t even ask. But I teach my child to share in hopes others will do the same.
I won’t stoop down to your level out of spite because you and your family were unkind to my son. I’ll show you how it’s done. I will always lead by example and expect my children to do the same.
How to treat everyone with kindness. Even if they don’t always deserve it.
An older woman did eventually show up. I assumed it was your mom. She didn’t pay much attention as she lay out on the deck chair for most of her stay there.
And the rules she saw you break? She paid no mind to those, either.
I realized there isn’t anyone teaching you about kids like mine or people with differences.
Right from wrong.
I, on the other hand, spent hours redirecting, helping, and teaching my kids how to behave, be respectful, and to rise above.
I interjected when Lilliana slipped and swore, reminding her words like that weren’t for little ears. I had a little pep talk with her and her friends before we arrived.
I teach my kids to be aware of others around them. That a community pool is for all. That the rules apply to them, too.
I teach them to learn about others and be the kid who doesn’t let another sit at the lunch table alone.
My daughter was and always has been the kid to stand up to a bully. The one who lectured a kid for saying her friend was ‘so autistic,’ the new ‘r word’ for kids these days. The one who reached out to a boy who was sitting by the stairwell, covering his ears because he was overwhelmed by the loud sounds.
She knew what overstimulated looked like and felt like being the sibling of two special needs brothers and struggling with sensory overload herself at times.
She took the time to help, to educate those around him as they made fun, just stepping on and around him. She’s a helper. Always has been.
I taught her to love people for people. Different races, ethnicities, sexual orientations and disabilities.
It was no surprise to me her and her LGBTQ+ friends were the teens at the pool who were the most accepting and kind to others. I only wish more parents did the same.
The other day was just the beginning of what I’m sure is going to be a spring/summer full of these similar experiences.
Even at the local park, Finn noticed when the other kids didn’t want to play with him two weeks ago. He even walked up to them and said, ‘Hi, I’m Finn!’ I wish other parents even understood how big that was.
As we head into what is supposed to be a month of awareness for autism, I hope those of you who don’t understand it will try to.
Take a moment to read the many articles and blog posts that will be out there. Watch a video or listen to a podcast.
And teach your children. Show them it’s okay to say hi or ask questions. We love them. Ask us about autism.
Different isn’t scary. Different is beautiful.
Let my child show you how they see and experience things around them. Let their siblings show you what acceptance looks like.
Because it truly is a gift when they let you into their world.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Sheryl St. Aubin of Three Little Birds. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
Read more stories from Sheryl here:
‘We see you put self-care on the backburner, skipping workouts and coffee with friends for an IEP meeting. You are miracle workers, moving mountains by sheer will.’: Husband pens sweet letter to special needs moms, ‘You’re the epitome of beauty’
‘I loved him when he had words, and when he lost them. Through the sleepless nights, endless screaming, and walking in circles. I loved him even when he couldn’t say, ‘I love you.’: Mom to son with autism urges ‘all you need is love’
‘She fell into my arms, tears falling. ‘My boy was non-verbal. He let himself out the front door.’ She tightly clutched his blanket, and described a boy just like my own.’: Special needs mom talks anxiety, missing children statistics
Do you know someone who could benefit from reading this? SHARE with on Facebook with friends and family.