“Clean up on aisle 9.”

Yeah right, I wish it were that easy.  If this were a tangible spill, they would simply call a team member to clean it up. But how do you clean up an emotional spill?  No one wants to clean-up the sharp fragmented edges of a tantrum thrown by a four-year-old.

The stares of the others speak loudly. “She should really do a better job at teaching him manners at home so this awfully uncomfortable ‘scene’ is not seen in public. And just look at his helpless mother; why she can’t even quiet his piercing screams. If I were her, I’d… ”

If you were me, you would have a child diagnosed with Autism.

Amazing how many minutes in a given day I spend babysitting the assumptions of strangers in an effort to provide a more comfortable atmosphere.   I say programmed phrases like, “Oh dear, someone needs a nap,” or “Mommy’s not going to buy you anything with that attitude,” or the ultimate crowd-pleaser, “I’m going to count ten, and you had better get your act together.”  The truth is, I’ve been counting for over a year now, and it’s not an act.

Birth to 20-months was a great time for our son Grant, and we were proud that every baby milestone came with notable ease. He rolled over, sat up, crawled, and then walked much earlier than most. His accomplishments were our golden verbal trophies, and we proudly displayed them in conversations everywhere.  Time was moving, and physically, so was he.  His language, however, seemed to stand still. At nearly two-years-old, he returned to babbling, and then, only scattered sounds. There were no words.

The far-off stares in his eyes, the repetitive runs back and forth into corner walls, and the unbreakable fascination with disassembling objects, were becoming all too frequent.  He slowly began to drift away inside himself. When the official diagnosis came at 34-months, we plunged into a rigorous regime of Speech and Language camps, Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) Therapy, Social Skill Camps, Extended School Year programs, and countless Early Interventionist meetings.

The progress made in just one year has been awe-mazing. On most days Grant is focused, making full eye contact with his quarter-sized beautiful brown eyes. He is able to write his name and spell it using keyboards or magnetic letters. He appropriately uses his toys and is aware of the presence of others.  He speaks with vowel sounds and is learning to receive and show affection.

Most amazingly, he has become a teacher of sorts to his two-year old sister, who is verbal. He, making eye contact with her, will point to the letters of the alphabet   expecting her to correctly say the letter he points to.   Just this week, he pointed to the letter, “W”, which he pronounces, “ouble-oo.”  His sister looked at the letter and said, “ouble-oo.”  He returned a stern look and pointed to the same letter again. This exchange happened twice until finally she said, “Double-u.” He was pleased, and then pointed to the next letter, X.

Yes, indeed, that’s him.  That’s my son.  That’s my son whose nickname is, “CHAMP.”   That’s also the little boy who just had a meltdown on aisle 9.

In these “Aisle 9” moments it becomes painfully obvious that the average spectators haven’t paid the cost of admission to see my life. They judge my entire performance on this one episode. They hear the out-of-control screeching and see a child with no obvious physical disorder, and think, “Ahh, yes, behavioral issues.”

This is not intended to cast stones at those who have misjudged situations like mine. Instead, it’s an invitation to meet me on aisle 9 where brightly colored boxes of understanding, sensitivity and perspective are shelved and wait for those willing to look for them.

Sarena James, 35, is a wife and stay-at-home mother of three who enjoys theater and writing. She and her family reside in Charleston, SC where they frequent historic tours and relax beachside. Originally from Aurora, CO, Sarena is a graduate of Paine College in Augusta, Ga