By GRACE CLARK, Special To The Courant
The Hartford Courant
1:35 PM EDT, March 20, 2013
While shopping at Target one day, I had a big argument with another shopper over my so-called parenting skills because my son ignored his boundaries as he passed her. After spying a row of Charmin toilet tissue (I’ve noted my son’s affinity for the picture of Mr. Charmin bear in a previous blog), he literally leaped out the cart and pushed passed this woman, briskly brushing against her body to get to the isle.
I immediately apologized, explaining that he does not understand boundaries (I did not feel it necessary to tell her he has autism). She proceeded to tell me how rude my son is and that I should teach him how to say excuse me. I explained that he has autism and does not know how to say excuse me and apologized again.
Apparently this was not enough. The customer decided to lecture me about what a “bad parent” I am and that I should be ashamed of myself. I was livid. I told her she has no idea what she was talking about; how dare she presume to know what kind of mother I am; how ignorant she was and that she should read a book and walk in my shoes for even a second, then come back and talk to me about motherhood. Her husband looked flabbergasted that she had gone to that extreme with me.
I know that going into someone’s personal body space is invasive. It’s a common problem for autistic children, who don’t have a concept of the correct social etiquette in communicating with others. Trying to teach boundaries is a constant challenge. On any given day at the grocery store, for example, my son will instantly bolt down an isle pushing by any unsuspecting shopper to get to a bag of chips he eyed from a few isles over. I cringe at this and am immediately apologetic. Usually, with a look of understanding that something is unusual about this kid, the response is, “It’s OK.”. It’s really not.
Children with autism don’t know anything about boundaries. They are either too close or not close enough. Though such an invasion is bothersome, the reality is many parents of autistic children want to see this behavior. It shows a sense of connectedness from a child who is often socially isolated and doesn’t usually want to be touched or make eye contact.
There have been countless days when my Cash’an has looked very disconnected. Talking to him or giving him direction, he has looked off into space or seemingly right through me. Lately, though, Cash’an has been invading my personal body space – putting his face right in front of mine, almost nose-to-nose, with his big, brown eyes, locked into mine. As his mother and on so many other levels, I love it. I also like when he sits close, leaning on me, if even for a moment, to rest his arm or head on my lap. It seems like a little thing, but it’s huge for a parent with a child who many days stays in his own space.
Another milestone is that for a long time, Cash’an did not hug. He still does not do so at will, but he now knows how to because he is being encouraged to hug at home. I smile when my daughter hugs Cash’an. Even when he immediately tries to wiggle out of her arms, she tells him “I’m going to hug you anyway because that’s what sisters do. ” And sometimes there’s even a smile from him when he hugs her back.
Like with all of us, there is power in touch and proximity when communicating with someone. Still, Cash’an sometimes sits a little too close to his brother when my other son is playing a video game, or nozzles up in his sister’s personal space when she’s on the computer. It’s annoying for them. As children, we are rightly taught to protect our personal space. While Cash’an is starting to get a sense of himself in relation to others, he still needs to learn limits. Not an easy lesson for an autistic child. More and more, he stares directly at my eyes when he communicates and watches others in the room seemingly searching for a connection. The good news is that he wants to.
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