“I’m sorry, he has special needs”

I found myself saying this to someone earlier today. I hate having to apologise or explain my child’s behaviour to strangers but sometimes he is so ‘out there’ that I have to say something.

On this occasion we were visiting a local supermarket restaurant and Isaac had wandered off (he won’t sit for long) so I had gone in search of him. To drag him back or even try to persuade him to come back and sit with us would result in a massive screaming match so I try to watch him and pick him up only when necessary. He would never cause willful damage and just needs to explore and move around as part of his disability. But today he was in full ‘autism’ mode and very excited. He was walking, flapping and being very vocal and became very excited when he saw two ladies eating something he liked the look of. They also happened to be sitting on a window seat which makes him even more excited (not sure why but it does). So I watched my 4 year old boy, who to everyone looks perfectly normal, walk up to this table flapping his arms and making noises and heading straight to their table. He then stopped, looked at their table from strange angles and clapped his hands like he was cheering them on. Had he moved on I could have coped with this strange behaviour and said a silent prayer that the ladies would not try talking to him and carry on like nothing had happened. But Isaac turned around and walked to the centre of the restaurant before immediately turning right back and repeating every action he had just done all over again to the same ladies at the same table. Oh dear. One of those moments you just know is going to end in tears.

I was still reluctant to intrude on my son and hoped his short attention span and sensory processing problems might lead him on to somewhere else quickly. But something about these ladies, something about their food or the seats they had chosen to sit in where clearly interesting to Isaac. He was off again. The ladies tried to ignore him but I defy anyone to ignore a strange child who comes to you when you are eating, flapping his arms like a bird, looking at you through strange angles and tilting his head to the side and then stops right at you and claps his hands wildly making strange noises like a seal.

So I went and explained. “I’m sorry, he has special needs”. Well I guess that was pretty obvious by now! I picked my son up, kicking and screaming and took him out. I never did get to finish my lunch. And I really don’t know what they thought of my kids behaviour.

I don’t like apologising for my children’s behaviour. But I have to. There are so many social ‘norms’ and rules that people expect both from other adults and children. They say people with autism don’t understand social rules. My child does not even know social rules exist! He looks normal (discounting the strange way he looks at things, the strange noises he makes and the flapping and clapping) so it is expected he will behave ‘normal’. He isn’t in a wheelchair or walking with the aid of a walking frame. He doesn’t wear hearing aids or even glasses but he still has a disability.

And I want him to have a life. I want to take him places and let him explore. I know there will be times like today when he is too ‘out there’ and draws attention to himself. I know plenty of people will have seen him today and passed judgement. On both Isaac and myself. I know some people will feel I allowed him to go too far today. It is a difficult balance. The balance of allowing him to be himself, accounting for his developmental age and disability and that of acceptable social norms and rules and preventing him from ‘disturbing’ others. I walk a fine line every time I take him out. But I will continue to take him out.

Every day I take him out I am going to have to say to someone “I’m sorry, he has special needs”. Some days I will be saying it with pride. He is my boy, even if I have to apologise that he has done something you don’t understand or that has upset you, I am proud he has made it into the shop in the first place. I am proud he is walking. I am proud he didn’t help himself to your dinner! Some days I will be saying it with sadness that society still isn’t used to seeing enough ‘different’ people to understand and tolerate disability in all it’s forms. Some times I will say it in embarrassment as his behaviour crosses the boundary of ‘acceptable’ (oh there are too many ladies bums and boobs he has now touched as we pass in the trolley) But other times I will be saying it to educate.

I guess today I said it for all of those reasons. Maybe I should just wear a t-shirt saying “I’m sorry, he has special needs” but then again maybe, just maybe, a combination of more education, tolerance and understanding plus perhaps my child slowly learning what is ‘acceptable’ would mean one day soon I will be able to take Isaac out in public without having to say “I’m sorry, he has special needs.”Image

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9 thoughts on ““I’m sorry, he has special needs”

  1. I say send him to me to Barrow. I love Issac and his ways so much. He is a beautiful little boy, Some people will be uncaring even if educated.

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  2. Why are you sorry? Those children need love and I am sure you have buckets of it to give. I would not apologize, perhaps just say “My boy is autistic, he means no harm.”

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    • I am sorry that some people, like these ladies, find his behaviour disturbing at times. He was clearly bothering them today even if he wasn’t bothering me. Not everyone wants or can cope with a strange child acting like this right in their face when they are trying to eat. It seemed the right thing to do given their reaction to him. Sadly not everyone understands autism.

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  3. Another insightful and touching piece of writing- straight from your honest and humble heart dear Miriam. You are a star and we are all richer for knowing and loving you and your precious family. Thank you for taking time to record what many other parents of children who don’t just fit the social norm ‘ must feel and struggle with, but maybe could not express so clearly. Wow!

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  4. Uncle Joseph
    Miriam dont say you are sorry just say my lovely child is autistic and speak to your son. Isaac does not know he is doing wrong. If you need help going to shops etc. on weekday nights or on a Sunday I am more than willing to help. If the social norm cant accept a lovely child like Isaac then there is a problem with society.

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    • I think it’s difficult for us all, definitely not an ‘us and them’ situation anymore: everyone knows someone with some gradient of autism these days, but as you say – from the outside its unclear in what way his ability to communicate is affected. I think many people out of a feeling of helplessness, don’t know how to respond to him (they may think will he understand? Will it scare him if I talk to him? Will it upset him if I engage him?) and they look to you for their cue. You explain it so clearly here – he liked them! Next time I’d say ‘Oh I think my wee boy likes you! He can’t tell you that himself due to his autism’ and that explains in a nutshell what you explained on this blog.
      I think you are doing a brilliant job. Well done Miriam! X

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  5. I think that you have absolutely no reason to be sorry. I believe that he was born this special way for a reason, and people should just accept that. I understand that it may be hard for some to tolerate those children that are “different”, but really, we all can be “different”. It’s sad to me that some people are so “intolerable” of children with disability; the child can’t help it, why should they get angry about it? It’s understandable that you wanted to apologize, but next time, I wouldn’t. Like a comment prior to my own, I would state that he has autism and that he doesn’t mean any harm. Obviously he does not, he is a sweet 4 year old. I think you have a lot of courage to take him out in public, and that’s exactly what any parent should do. Your child needs that public experience, whether they have to get used to the environment first or not. You are inspiring!

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