My son N can turn a boring everyday shopping experience into an epic adventure, transforming the mundane into an exploration of “where no man has gone before”.
N, who is very autistic, loves to visit the supermarket. N’s spoken repertoire is fairly small, but one word he knows and uses regularly is “store”. That word refers to the grocery store. Before I realized what exactly he meant by “store”, he would also use the word “grocery” to indicate precisely what kind of store he would like to visit. Now, after years of experience, I know exactly what he wants when he requests “store”. I even know what store he wants to visit, just by the time of day that the request arises, or the geography of where the request is made. N has an incredible spatial sense and knows the location of all grocery stores (and fast food outlets) in our town. Since I now understand completely what he wants, he simply repeats the word “store” over and over again, until he either gets his wish or is able to understand my explanation of “no”.
Over time I have realized the reason for the fascination with the grocery store, why the superlative joy at the grocery shopping experience: the supermarket is a paradise of food! Cruising the aisles, N is surrounded by row after row piled high with delicious possibilities. It is the sensory value, and the potential sensory value, that appeals to him. He loves the high ceilings, the large lights that hang from it, and of course the ceiling fans that twirl restfully above his head. He loves the sound of his high pitched yowling voice echoing in the great space of the store. He loves the taste of good food, and he imagines the tastes of foods around him!
Because he loves it so, I often take him with me food shopping. But it is not easy, having him in tow. Yes he is noisy, he shrieks; and he inappropriately eats food before it has been paid for. Neither of these are life threatening. The big worry for me – he runs away on me. That has happened more than once. I usually know where to find him when he disappears – the olive bar! But to avoid this potential problem I have learned how best to keep him close by me. As soon as we enter the store, I grab something that he will enjoy eating and I open it. I put it in the grocery cart. I have taught N that the open item stays in the cart, and that way he stays with me. I have learned what stores to visit – the ones that have chip displays or raspberries near the entrance door. Those are his favorite grocery store snacks.
Yet just when I think I have him figured out, just when I think I have him under control, doesn’t he confound me? Behold, a new adventure! This week as we entered the store, I grabbed a bag of Tostitos and we proceeded inside to do our shopping. As we made our way down the cereal aisle, N was eating the Tostitos and following the grocery cart as anticipated. All was well, and so I walked a bit further down the aisle to retrieve one item, leaving him munching beside the cart. I was not more than 20 feet away, which was too far, I realize, in hindsight. As I searched for the item, I noticed out of the corner of my eye that a very obese young man had entered the aisle and was approaching N. N was staring at his extremely large, protruding and flabby belly with fascination.
Oh OH! I knew that something terrible was about to happen. Suddenly N produced an index finger and proceeded to stick it between the folds of fat on his enormous stomach. Pillsbury Dough Boy did NOT giggle. Instead, he turned beat red and his anger shot out his ears like steam from a boiling kettle. I cringed, and cried out as I anticipated the impending physical blow that I could feel from his angry expression. Instead, he turned his furious gaze at me as though I was responsible. He strode over to me and exclaimed “THAT WAS INCREDIBLY RUDE!”
“I know, and I am sorry!” I told him, “he is autistic, and has no idea what “rude” is, he does not understand that it is not appropriate to touch someone like that!” I understood his reaction – N is 10 years old and looks totally normal – his behaviour would definitely not be expected by a normal child that age.
My heart was beating frantically with fear that the man would hurt my son. I even thought he might hurt me. The outcome: “Humpht!”- the man uttered, and then stormed away! I was ablaze with embarrassment, but I knew that he was also embarrassed, embarrassed not only by N’s inconsiderate attention to his condition, but also by his own reaction that was, in retrospect, ignorant. But how could he have known?
I was very glad to leave the store that day. I thought afterwards about how I might have reacted to avoid the embarrassing problem. I could have stayed closer – I could have diverted N’s attention, or his physical prod. It was me that strayed from the shopping cart that day. I had not anticipated other dangers other than N running away. I had not anticipated the possibility that there could be danger to N if he stayed WITHIN my sight.
As I think about it now, I realize that we, as parents, cannot anticipate all situations that can harm our children. We all do our very best to keep our children safe, we mitigate the bounds of our our love with the desire for them to grow. I will not give up on taking N to the store, in spite of the pitfalls, in spite of the challenges and the potential dangers that I do not yet anticipate. I still dream of the possibilities, that someday N will be able to do something he loves, maybe something as simple as help bag grocery items for customers or ferry shopping carts from the outside corrals to the indoor pickup areas. So I continue to explore, with him, where no man has gone before!