This Sunday was unseasonably pleasant; or maybe it was seasonably pleasant. You never can tell what season we’re supposed to be in in Georgia outside of the summer months. This Sunday it was spring. On Thursday we’re going back to winter.
The sunshine had put my kids in a particularly good mood, which was fortunate because my cousin had invited us to join her at the Georgia Aquarium. She had been gifted two extra tickets and was kind enough to share them with us. I took Stone and Liya with me since they rarely get to go anywhere these days. We ogled strange looking fish, ooo’d and aaah’d over the immense expanse of the whale shark, and squealed at the weird snake/worm things burrowing and resurfacing out of the sand in the tropical fish tank. Like any good mother, I pretended this was all new to me and let the kids explain in pre-school and toddler voices the importance of keeping Nemo in his anemone and safe from kidnapping divers.
Two hours into our excursion we decided to stop for lunch at the aquarium’s café, which as you can imagine cost me a small fortune. Thankfully, I did not have my entire brood in tow or else I might’ve been forced to convert an exhibit into my own personal sushi platter. The aquarium was packed with visitors, and it seemed as though everyone decided to eat at the same time. One of the ballrooms on the second floor was opened up to allow patrons to eat lunch, which was a fortuitous event as far as I was concerned. To my knowledge, the ballrooms are the only place to see the beluga whales, so we settled in to eat our $25.17 baked chicken and cheese pizza with minimal complaints.
As was to be expected, Stone and Liya spent the better part of the hour running between the table and the tank, taking bites of food and debating whether the large white being with half closed eyes “farting” in the water was a beluga or a dolphin. (That was my fault. Mommy lied and said it was a dolphin, just to end the incessant queries about when we were going to see the dolphins.) The afternoon was on autopilot at this point. No one could get lost, the area we were in was climate controlled, and there was enough stimulation to keep my kids occupied with minimal effort on my part. I bit into my chicken and chewed it contentedly, preparing to relax.
Then I heard someone wailing. Whose child was that? Hmmm. It sounded like mine…
I looked up and saw Stone’s face, frozen in a half heave, half scream, eyes transfixed on the fish tank in obvious distress. I rushed over to him to find out what was wrong, not so much because I was concerned that something was seriously amiss, but because I wanted to get back to my chicken as quickly as possible.
“What’s wrong buddy?”
“He hit me in the faaaace!!!” he wailed pointing at a table behind us. He sounded so forlorn, but when I saw the towheaded little cherub he was pointing at, I was convinced he was exaggerating about the extent of his supposed injury.
“That’s a baby, Stonie. He didn’t mean to hit you…”
Stone shook his head furiously. “No! Not him…HIM!”
His pudgy little finger was pointed in the direction of a massive child dressed in a white polo and khakis. He had a grin on his face and a slight bend in his wrist. It occurred to me that something was amiss with the boy, but medically I couldn’t ascertain what that was. I tried to comfort Stone, but he would not be consoled. He wanted justice. I sighed and approached who I thought might be the boy’s parents. The couple was watching me with such keen interest that I was sure it was their child.
I have a policy that only permits me one “Black Woman Freak Out” per week, and I had already redeemed my token at LA Fitness the Friday before. Unbeknownst to the frightened looking couple, they were quite safe.
“Excuse me,” I said cautiously. “Is that your son?”
“No,” said the man with the camo trucker hat and full beard. “That’s his dad.”
He nodded in the direction of a man staring down at this telephone, obviously purposefully ignoring our conversation. At a mere 10 feet away, he was within earshot but refusing to pay attention the very public scene unfolding before him. He had on a bright blue tee shirt with two words written boldly on the front: Autism Matters
I groaned inwardly, frozen and unsure what to do next. Suddenly, I had become an unwilling participant in the Disadvantaged Olympics, a case of fully functioning Black woman (but disadvantaged because, you know, I’m BLACK) against the father of an autistic child who is disadvantaged because of his disability. A swirl of media messages came at me out of nowhere. All of the stories I’d read on Facebook, Yahoo! Shine and a myriad of parenting blogs about mean people like me who discriminated against their children merely because they looked or acted different confronted me like a crack dealer looking for his due. What could I do, with my sobbing child in my hands, a boy running roughshod and blissfully nonchalant about the crime he’d recently committed and a father who didn’t even have the decency to look up from his phone to offer neither acknowledgment nor apology for the wrong meted out against my kid?
I dropped it. And I tried to explain it to Stone. I told him the kid didn’t mean it, that he didn’t understand what he’d done. How do you explain autism and disabilities to a four year old? I barely understand all there is to know myself! My son was having none of it. He began to wail anew. Finally, the man in the camo hat walked over and patted Stone’s head.
“Jeesh. I’m sorry buddy,” he said in a Southern drawl. He kept my gaze. “He’s got autism, see? He doesn’t always understand what he’s doing…”
“Yes. I saw his dad’s shirt.” I paused. “It’s okay.”
He rubbed Stone’s head gently one more time and walked back over to his wife. The 9 year old boy continued to run around the room squealing, and I stood protectively between Stone and all the other children, in case anything else untoward jumped off. In the back of my mind, I felt unsure about whether I’d handled the situation appropriately. My mother-in-law confirmed that I had NOT. An educator for 30 years, she had a completely different view of the events.
“No, Malaka,” she said firmly. “We had autistic children in our classes and we set expectations for them just like we did for the other children. They know right from wrong, and if they don’t, it’s because their parents haven’t TAUGHT them right for wrong. The only reason that boy slapped Stone is because his daddy lets him hit other kids…and one day that’s going to come back and bite him. One day, he’s going to do something worse than a slap!”
That was just BAD PARENTING, she concluded. If the man can’t control his kid, he shouldn’t have him out in public! She was livid. She was right, of course. A child with disabilities is just like any other child, with the same needs: love, care and correction. It was my prejudice that let both father and son off the hook. If I had not made assumptions about what the boy was capable of, or assumed that the dad was weary of perpetually correcting his kid, Stone would have gotten the apology he deserved.
What do you think, MOM Squad? I know a number of you have children with disabilities, so this would be a chance to discuss how you think this interaction should have played out, or better still, how you WISH parents would interact in general. Did I handle it poorly, well, or just right? People without kids, I’d like your thoughts as well. One day you may find yourself in the care of a child (yours or someone elses). Discuss!