It’s one of the most popular burger places across from Stanford University in Palo Alto. I stepped in the long line to order and a woman with an 11-year old boy got in line behind me. She warned her son several times to be patient, yet she was a tad bit irritated herself. A mother-son verbal conflict arose, complete with that’s not fair versus a you don’t always get what you want speech.
At first, I just listened. The boy was on verge of a chaotic meltdown, and honestly, I thought she should make good on her promise to take him straight home if his impatience continued.
…then I casually glanced behind me. The boy looked perfectly normal, yet he was clearly autistic in behavior. The lady was keenly aware of the reactions she was getting from those nearby. She gave her son a pen and paper and he entertained himself at a nearby table.
She spoke behind me asking if I knew it took 10 minutes in line and then another 15 to receive the order. I turned around and politely told her I didn’t realize that, and considered bolting for another place.
Then she started talking.
She said in their two years in California that many places seem far less efficient than in New Jersey, which is where she and her husband are from. I just nodded my head, wanting to stand quietly in line, and then she told me I wasn’t from California.
Surprised, I asked how she knew that. She explained, “He’s autistic. You didn’t gawk at my son when you looked back. Most people around here gawk.”
I immediately felt a twinge of guilt. Truth be told, my first thoughts before looking behind me was that she needed to get a hold of her son and discipline the spoiled little brat for his temper tantrum.
I told her I was from Texas and my wife, Janet, and I had been taking care of three of the grandchildren the past week while their parents were out of town. I explained this would be a late lunch, our last one, while the grands took a nap.
Satisfied, she began telling me, a complete stranger, how she and her husband came to California for the climate which helped their son. She said people don’t generally understand autism, and for them as parents, sometimes it feels like they were in a life-long prison sentence. She talked about how they are pushing their son, for his benefit, to face the world, even though it is a cruel and “gawking” world at times. They know how hard it is for them, and that it’s even harder for him as a child, yet pushing him now will give him a compassionate chance of success as an autistic adult.
She talked for ten minutes about medication, techniques to deal with autism, social reactions, and how doing what they thought was best for their son wasn’t always the most popular decision with friends and family.
Her son sat contently at the table drawing circles and numbers on a page, completely in his own zone.
I volunteered that I had a grown son who is deaf and remember quite well that feeling as a parent. After all, we live in a hearing society, not a deaf culture, a neurological world, not an autistic cabin.
She nodded a tired, thankful look. She said, “I thought you understood by the way you looked at my son”. Another guilt arrow burned a hot point into a heart chamber, for that wasn’t at all what I was thinking when I glanced behind me. I encouraged the lady to stay the course and stand in the gap for their son…
She started pointing and told me I was next in the open order line. I ordered to go burgers and waited 15 minutes across the restaurant while the lady sat with her autistic son still drawing circles and numbers.
Disabilities are hard, under any circumstance, but invisible disabilities seem the most difficult. Someone on metal crutches may have someone open the door for them, or help carry a package. At least their crutches are seen.
Invisible is the autistic person in a noisy environment, the depressed person considering a permanent escape, or the alcoholic trying to avoid a drink. Invisible are those with hidden phobias that squeeze the throat, a damaged psyche from untold abuse, or even a clogged heart artery about to stop for good. Invisible, sight unseen. Invisible people.
The fact is you never know what people are going through. Some struggles you see. Most you don’t.
What happens to those who don’t have someone like this boy’s parents in their court? What happens to people with invisible problems, especially when they are also alone? Who picks up their mantle and marches beside them? I don’t know. I really don’t know.
God help the invisible. God help us…no, God help me, see the invisible people.