“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