Last evening as I walked through the nearly empty mall with my two youngest, you five girls were behind us by several yards. We had just seen a movie and were in great spirits. We were walking to meet up with four of my older children.
We stopped to take a photo, at one of those cutout scenes where you stick your faces through the holes. I caught sight of you as we took our photo, walking and giggling and having a good time. I have had teenaged girls and know how much fun they can have together in a mall. I noted to myself that you were a lively group but certainly not threatening in any way. You were walking faster than we were and the gap between us was closing. I turned from snapping our photo and we continued down the hall.
My son fell behind a few steps as he was adjusting his earbuds. He was listening to his music like a typically developing 13-year-old boy might do in a mall. Though if you could have seen his playlist you would have realized he is not a typically developing 13-year-old boy. He was probably listening to Disney tunes, the muppets, or a preschool sensation called The Fresh Beat Band.
You probably did not notice he was “different” until you saw him run a few steps to catch up to me. He always runs on his toes with a very awkward gait; and I’m sure that a 6’3” young man running on his toes looked pretty ridiculous to you.
The mall was empty enough for me to hear your innocent girlish giggling turn to that of a contemptuous kind of laughter. I knew before I turned; but I could not stop myself. I turned to look and saw one of you mocking my son. You were running on your toes and flailing your arms. My son and his little sister kept walking, not noticing that I had turned to look behind us. They both have special needs and were oblivious to the change in my demeanor.
I took about three steps back toward you, and your forward pace slowed. I must have looked very intimidating all of the sudden. I had gone from happy and quietly content to irate in a fraction of a second.
I can only imagine the look I had on my face as I took those few steps toward you. I did see the looks on your faces. Your laughter stopped. I saw guilt and I saw your faces redden with embarrassment. You were caught. You thought you’d have your laugh at my son’s expense and we would not notice. Or perhaps you did not care if we noticed, but you certainly did not expect me to turn and call you out.
I cannot remember my exact words but I believe they were, “My son has autism. I sure hope you are not making fun of him.”
Your stuttering and stammering out, “We’re not. We’re not making fun of anyone.” caused me to doubt myself for a split second; but then I remembered I had seen one of you, the girl on the far left, copying my son’s movements while all five of you laughed.
I said no more, and turned back toward my kids and caught up to them, thankful that my son had his headphones in and thankful that he probably would not have understood much of our exchange if he had been listening anyway.
As we all continued down the hall I had to remind myself that all five of you are just kids, probably very nice girls most of the time. One of you were impulsive enough to make fun of the differences you saw in my son and the other four were weak enough to go along with the joke.
I had to remind myself that you all five had families that love you as much as I love my children and you all five may have issues of your own to deal with. And perhaps you really did believe that making fun of someone else is just innocent fun and we would have no idea it had even happened.
Perhaps you go to a school where the kids with special needs are kept separate from you or perhaps it is acceptable among your peers to laugh at their differences. We are from a small town and my son Tate goes to a small school. He has peers who accept him and do not make fun of the way he moves or talks. They know he is different and help him to fit in. They do not laugh at him or belittle him. As a matter of fact, had some of them been with him last night, they would have probably said more to you about your behavior than I did.
I have to admit that I have no idea if turning and calling you out was the right thing to do or not. I did not know how to react. You see I have never seen anyone mock my son before. In fact, in thirteen years I cannot remember him once being made fun of. Perhaps there have been times and I have just not caught on like I did last night but I like to think that you are the first. How does that make you feel? You broke a thirteen-year streak for us.
If statistics prove true and all five of you grow up to become mothers, chances are that one of you will have a child or a grandchild with a disability. I do not wish that on your child or grandchild, but if it happens, I actually hope that you get a thirteen-year streak without bullying. As a matter of fact, I hope you have an even longer one. And even more importantly I hope that if your son or daughter, grandson or granddaughter, are ever bullied that you will not be able to think back and remember the time that you yourself laughed at a child with a disability and caused a mother pain. The burden might be too heavy for you to bear.
Lisa Smith is the mother of seven children ranging in ages 10 to 26. Lisa’s youngest two children have special needs. Lisa’s blog called “Quirks and Chaos” entertains and educates as she discusses autism, adoption, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) and ADHD. Find Lisa on Facebook as Quirks and Chaos.