The boy on the bus

6 Jul

Yesterday, while I was in the bus on the way home, a child started to cry. He couldn’t have been older than two, and he cried in that all-out, heart-felt, unrestrained way that only very young children can achieve. It was a scorching hot day and the bus was crowded: the child was stressed and exhausted and there were no seats available for him or his mother. To add insult to injury, the child’s shoe came off and rolled behind a couple of other passengers. This can be a big deal for a small child who’s already having a hard day.  Because the bus was jam-packed, well-meaning passengers were not able to bend over to pick the shoe up, so it had to stay where it was until the crowd had cleared a little.

The crying was relentless, and painful to listen to.  The child’s mother was trying to calm him down while at the same trying to take care of the other child she had with her.  She was clearly overwrought; I had a moment of direct eye contact with her, and she had pure desperation written all over her.  Not surprisingly, people were staring, drawn as they are to focus on loud noises around them. Some were understanding, some were visibly annoyed. One man offered the mother and child his seat: she politely declined, saying that she wanted to remain near the front of the bus, no doubt to make a quick escape without having to fight through crowds.

After a while, the lost shoe was returned to its rightful owner, and the child’s mother succeeded in calming the crying somewhat.  Instead of out-and-out howls of outrage, there were quiet snuffles with the occasional bout of loud crying. Eventually, the mother got off the bus with her two children, but not without being rudely pushed out of the way by a man whose life must have depended on him exiting first.

As soon as the bus doors closed, the woman sitting beside me, who you could tell just by looking at her had issues, loudly proclaimed, “Well! That child needs a good hiding!”

Maybe it was the not-so-subtle waves of disapproval and judgmentalness radiating from her.  Or maybe I was just in one of those perverse bloody-minded moods I get into from time to time. Or maybe I’ve simply become one of those moms who cannot shut up when her view of how the world should be is violated. Whatever the case, I couldn’t just let that remark go.

“Why spank a sweet child like that?” I asked innocently.

The woman looked at me incredulously, and scrunched her face up into a sour expression, earning her the title in my mind of Lemon-Face. She said, “He is so badly behaved.  I cannot believe any mother would let her child get away with that.”

By now, she had the attention of every single passenger on the bus. It was blatantly obvious to everyone, except her, that the child had not been misbehaving.  He had just been very upset and unable to cope with it. None of the other passengers, however, wanted to participate in the dialogue, and I found them all looking expectantly at me.

I stated the obvious, which was that she should give this kid a break, he was no more than two, and then went on to say, “Besides, you don’t even know the circumstances. Maybe he was just at the doctor and had his shots. Maybe he’s not feeling well.  Maybe he fell on the playground and hurt himself.” I paused a beat, and said what was really on my mind: “Maybe he has a disability like autism and is reacting to sensory overload.”

Lemon-Face was nonplussed.  Clearly the type who routinely expresses prejudicial opinions without being challenged on them. Not to be outdone, she said, “Autism is just a fancy way of saying a child is undisciplined and out of control.”

Uh oh.

I had to explain, of course.  I had to tell Lemon-Face how flourescent lights can feel like fire burning directly onto an autistic child’s retina, how the hum of normal conversation can be like shouting, how a gentle touch can, at the wrong moment, feel like nails piercing the skin.  I had to describe my own son’s absolute fear of Wal-Mart check-out lines, triggered by some combination of senses that I cannot understand.

I had to explain how offensive it is to hear strangers remark that my son needs a good hiding – remarks that are always accompanied by the clear but unspoken implication that my child is that way because I’m a bad parent.  These strangers don’t understand what it’s like to be my son, or to be the parent trying to help him make sense of a situation that is scaring him.

I had to make it absolutely clear that spankings are not for everyone – least of all for children with autism who are having a hard enough time as it is coping with whatever sensory overload is getting to them at any given moment.  And yes, I explained that I am in tune enough with my son that I know when he is having autistic meltdowns that he cannot control, and when he is simply being a brat.  Yes, I discipline him if the situation calls for it, but no, that discipline does not involve spanking.

I don’t usually launch into impromptu autism education sessions while using public transit. On the contrary, my commutes to and from work are my “me time”, the only time I can really switch off from everything and just read a book (sad, I know, but we take what we can get). On this one occasion, though, I felt that I had to stand up for autistic children and their parents.  If that woman left the bus with a smidgeon more awareness and understanding, then I believe I did my small part to make the world a better place.


3 Responses to “The boy on the bus”

  1. Jennifer Ensoll July 6, 2010 at 4:18 PM #

    Good for you Kirsten, why do people feel the need to be so rude, especially to a child….

  2. akbutler July 6, 2010 at 11:38 PM #

    hurray for you! You said what I’m sure most of that bus wanted to say. I always wonder where people get off saying stupid things like that. Good for you!!


  3. Jed July 7, 2010 at 1:41 PM #

    And thats why your a better person than me, I would have just poked her in the eye – actually both eyes, or maybe worse….

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