April 2012

In the ocean of frustrating obstacles and people we have to deal with on a regular basis as autism parents, we sometimes miss the life preservers, the kind and generous souls who walk in and out of our lives. They may be the living saints we work with on a daily basis, or they might wander into our lives at irregular intervals or even just once.

I’d like to tell you a little about one of those good souls and how people like him can make such a huge difference in your life. His name is Jonathan, and he works as a cashier at our nearby Target.

Cashiers have pretty thankless jobs. They’re expected to treat everyone nicely regardless of how rude customers get. Customers often don’t appreciate the rigors of standing on your feet for that many hours doing fairly repetitive tasks for little pay. I’ve seen plenty of customers verbally abuse them for issues at the store well beyond their control. While I’ve never worked a checkout lane in my life, I can’t imagine that I’d last 30 minutes before I became a surly jerk.

Cashiers can be some of our best friends as autism parents. If you were to graph our average shopping experience, it would start pretty low on the vertical axis and go downhill from there. Assuming we’ve made it that far in our often perilous shopping trip, a calm, friendly presence in the checkout lane can mean everything if our child is melting down, ejecting items from the cart, or otherwise at the edge of their limits of tolerance for all things shopping.

Then there are the rare people like Jonathan who go beyond that. Some of my parent friends and I were standing around talking about recent opportunities our kids have had to practice paying for things at a restaurant, ordering something, etc., which brought about how we might practice that in a store. I talked about how we’d set up a little script ahead of time a while back with a cashier at Target so our J-Man could practice saying hello and his name. Without even describing the cashier, a couple of the parents said, “Oh, it must have been that young, redhead man.”

Yep. Jonathan.

He is known because he is kind, a person you immediately know as a good soul. As parents we value those who show us and especially our children respect and kindness. We remember those who go well beyond all expectations to help our children. We think of them as if they are saints, because really they are.

We talked about Jonathan a bit and recommended his checkout lane to other parents we were talking to. He’s the kind of guy who genuinely is glad to see you and help you regardless of who you are. I swear you could have seven arms growing out of your head and be covered in flaming sulfur, and he would greet you warmly and make you feel good about life.

I don’t know him personally. I have no idea what he enjoys, what his aspirations are, or much of anything else about him. As a write that, I find that rather unfortunate. All I know about him is in the context of seeing him where we shop. But I find his genuine kindness and lack of pretense reassuring and heartening. He affirms much of the best of what we as humans are capable of being toward each other.

Through this he’s taught me an important lesson. Most likely neither of us will solve much of the world’s problems. But through acts of kindness to each person we encounter, we can make an enormous difference in the lives of at least a few. We remember those kindnesses, and we pass them on. And that is not only enough, it is quite a lot.

As I’ve said already, not only are people like this a godsend to us in our frayed emotional states, a great cashier or other store employee can be an amazing resource. We want to teach our children certain life skills like practicing communication with people who work at a store, asking for help, paying for items with money, and any of the myriad other things we have to do when we go shopping. This can be great practice for them in gaining comfort in these often difficult and stressful situations.

If you’re like us, you do as much shopping as you can in one place. We don’t have time to go driving around for things, and the more stores we drag the kids to – assuming we get past going to even one – the likelihood of problems and unnecessary stress goes up exponentially. Look for a few store employees you find really kind and helpful, and try to cultivate relationships with them. Appreciate them, respect them, tell their managers how awesome they are, and express gratitude when they help you and your child.

Ask them if they wouldn’t mind participating in a brief social script with your child or working with them while your child pays for an item or asks for something. You are setting up positive, reinforcing situations in which your child will have success. Go to the store at a less busy time of the day if possible so you can do this without feeling rushed. This will give your child opportunities to work on life skills with friendly, helpful people. Plus it gives you an opportunity to spread awareness about autism to people who almost certainly encounter autistic persons on a daily basis.

Oh, and if you’re ever in Raleigh, NC at the Target next to Triangle Town Center, go say hello to Jonathan. You’ll be glad you did.

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It’s World Autism Awareness Day! I went back and read our Autism Awareness Day posts from previous years and found they still capture what I think needs to be said about this day and what it means. However, I’ve found it difficult to keep perspective on this day year after year. Autism for us is a way of life now. The farther into the story you go each year, the more the layers of it build, change, and grow. You live it so completely that it’s hard to take a step back and really appreciate the richness and challenges of our journey and know how to share all this with others.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a three-part “Be Aware” series that listed pretty much everything I thought people should be aware of on this day. There’s Be Aware – For Parents, Be Aware – For Family and Friends, and Be Aware – For Everyone. I’ve been honored at the positive feedback I’ve received about these posts over the last two years. Hopefully you’ll find them worth taking a look at and sharing with people you know.

Last year, I also struggled with what this day means in the post “The Many Flavors of Autism Awareness”. Raising awareness is for most of us a 24/7/365 effort. I decided to take some time last year to become more mindful of all the kinds of awareness we should practice and encourage in others just to remind myself what our journey is all about. Re-reading it today helped me get back into that essential mindset.

Around the first anniversary of J’s diagnosis, I brainstormed ideas for practical actions people could take and created five suggestions for World Autism Awareness Day. I think I was more practical and into bullet points and step-by-step plans then. :-)

What seems almost poignant in retrospect is that the first World Autism Awareness Day (as designated by the United Nations) was about two weeks after J was diagnosed in 2008. It was clear from my words how frustrated and overwhelmed we were. We have come a very long way since then.

I’ll close this with the same words I closed the “Be Aware” posts. It feels like the most important point I want the world to know about me. I talk a lot about lows and highs, challenges and frustrations, exhaustion and hope for a better tomorrow, the trials and the triumphs. Life is a wild rollercoaster for all of us, and those wonderful highs and wrenching lows regularly become emotionally and physically exhausting. But if you know nothing else, know this.

Be aware that I wouldn’t trade my life for anything.

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