To the Mom of Typical Kids I Met at the Gym

Originally Published On The Mighty on October 31, 2018 and The Mother Rogue on July 5, 2018 as Dear ‘Same-Abled’ Mom from the ‘Autism’ Mom You Met at the Gym Yesterday

I was blow drying my hair in the women’s locker room mirror when you and your two girls came in from the outdoor pool. You opened a locker behind me and tried to get your daughters into dry clothes. Your girls resisted even your best efforts.

“Let’s get out of those wet suits,” you said to your girls.

“But Mom, what are we going to do after this?” The taller of the two asked.

“I’m hungry, Mom,” the other, clearly younger daughter said. “Can we eat soon?”

“Yes girls, but first you have to get out of those wet bathing suits,” you replied.

“The pool was fun. Can we come back?” the other, younger, daughter asked.

“Not today,” you replied, your patience clearly showing in your firm, loving tone. “Today we have to get dressed so we can leave the gym.”

This exchange, with you trying to get your girls to change out of their wet bathing suits and them chattering away and doing everything but changing out of those suits continued for a few more minutes. I tried not to smile as I listened, but I couldn’t help myself. I still remember the days when my own toddler son would stubbornly refuse to change out of his wet bathing suit after a day at the pool. When I could get him out of the water, that is.

I miss those days sometimes, when I was a young mom with a spirited, chatty 3-year-old. At 3 years old the signs of autism had just started to show. There was no diagnosis yet. None of the last 14 years had happened. Life was simpler.

I saw you notice my smile in the mirror in front of us, so I turned around.

“My son was just like that,” I said pleasantly. “He’s 17 now. I can get him out of the water. I just can’t get him to clean his room.”

You chuckled. “Yeah, I’m not looking forward to those years. Teenagers!”

“I don’t mind,” I replied (I truly don’t. I cherish every moment I get with my son. The emptiness of long distance motherhood, however, is a story for another time).

Then, without quite knowing why and completely unable to stop myself, I blurted out my first-ever piece of unsolicited parenting advice:

“Treasure even the exasperating moments. Someday you’ll want them back.”

I wished your girls a happy July fourth. You gave me an odd look before you wished me the same and I left the gym to pick up my son.

I didn’t mention autism during our 30 second conversation. If I had, you might have understood what I meant.

You might have realized I treasure every moment I have to pull out my firm, bordering on discipline, restrained voice with my son because those are the typical arguments that have nothing to do with autism. In my case, they usually revolve around forcing my kid out of his room and off a video game console.

You might have understood that to me, a child taking up a whole locker room bench isn’t even a thing.

You might have recognized my haste as I shut down the hair dryer and wrapped my too-long bangs around a curling iron for what it was: fear of not arriving at my son’s house at the exact time — to the second — he expected me.

You would have known that the dark circles overcoming my hastily applied concealer were the result of late nights searching the internet and wracking my brain for a way to give my son some relief from anxiety he’ll feel the next time his red shirt isn’t clean on a Monday.

You probably would have, had I mentioned autism, looked at me with some level of sympathy.

You can’t know that I don’t view autism as something to be sad about. Despite all the challenges, I only want the child I have, exactly the way he is. I don’t want my son to be typical. I just don’t want him to feel hurt that he isn’t.

You don’t have to do anything. I’m a warrior. I’ve got this. If you must do something, if you would like to help me, teach your girls to not bat an eye at the kid in school who doesn’t make eye contact, mumbles, or maybe yells when pizza is served the day the school cafeteria menu says grilled cheese. Tell them not to use the words “Special Ed”, “Sped” and “Short Bus” as jokes. Teach your girls to say hello to the socially awkward kid in the self-contained class like they are saying hi to one of her friends.

Above all, treasure every parenting challenge your typical girls send your way. Rejoice in the times they try your patience. Cherish the almost daily fights about curfews, too much makeup, and the occasional bad grades that will be part of their teenage years.