When you read articles about autism on the Internet, sooner or later (likely sooner) you’ll come across some common opinions in the comments section. They go something like this:
“Why don’t you just keep your child at home?”
“Here’s an idea: Your husband could stay home with the kids while you go grocery shopping alone!”
“People are paying for a meal. They don’t need to be interrupted by your unruly child who can’t handle the restaurant.”
“If your kid doesn’t do well on airplanes, then don’t fly!”
“Hire a sitter and go to (fill in the blank with any public place) alone!”
It’s sad that this is such a widely held view toward children (and probably some adults) with autism. My husband and I hold an opposite view on going out and about with our children, one of whom is on the spectrum. Here’s why:
1. It’s good for him. My son is a curious and bright little boy. He enjoys being with us and we enjoy being with him. It would be incredibly unfair to him and his development to limit his life experience to school, the doctors offices and home. To keep him away from public experiences that are tough for him would also perpetuate a cycle of disability rather than ability.
My son doesn’t do well in restaurants — the people, sitting, the smells and the noises are all a bit much for him. But if we were to simply cross that off the list of things we do with our son, he would never learn how to handle going to a restaurant. We aren’t taking him to swanky five-star restaurants and expecting him to sit quietly for a two-hour meal. But we do occasionally take him to a family-friendly diner when it isn’t too busy and hope for grace from the staff and other customers. We do take him to the local coffee shop and work on sitting at the table without getting up even if it only lasts five minutes.
Sitting at the dinner table at home isn’t good enough practice for sitting in a restaurant, just like gathering items from the cupboard isn’t practice for grocery shopping. The task itself typically isn’t the issue — it’s the environment. The only way for him to get used to being out in the world and overcome some of his anxiety is to get out in the world. It isn’t easy for him, but it’s good for him.
2. It’s good for us. The idea that our family should be held hostage in our home is absurd. Of course, there are days we’d like to go for an outing, but we recognize that it’s a terrible day for it (this could be true for either of our kids) so we stay in. But usually, we do things together whenever possible.
On the weekends, we enjoy family time and sometimes that looks a little messy, but it’s good for us to get out together. If we were to hire a sitter for our son every time we wanted to leave the house, it would feel to us that we were no longer treating him as a valued member of the family but as a nuisance. We love him and we love doing things with him. The only way for us to learn how to teach our son life skills and how to manage in different scenarios is through trial and error. One outing might be disastrous, but through it we learned how to be better prepared the next time.
This doesn’t downplay the enormous struggle it can be to do outings as a family. Sometimes I am tempted to say it isn’t worth it or it’s just too hard. But it’s good for our family to be stretched and challenged and to get out together.
3. It’s good for the general public. The fact that there are so many people who think our children should be kept out of the public eye is disturbing. It reminds me of a time not so long ago when you simply didn’t see people with special needs out in the community. Why? Because they were institutionalized. People who had so much to offer this world were hidden away because of fear, ignorance, apathy and a lack of compassion and resources.
Today we don’t do that because we know better. We know that children with autism grow up to be adults with autism. And we know now that they can be incredible contributions to society just like anyone else. We know now that they have much to offer and teach us.
It’s good for the public to get used to seeing people with differences out and about. It’s good for us to see a new way of learning and thinking and doing things. It’s good for us as a society to learn to live together in unity and to encourage each other in our unique gifts and passions. It’s good for us to help each other through times of trouble and to lean on one another for community and support.
And one of the ways we do that is by being together, in public, with all kinds of people of all kinds of abilities.
So that’s why we take our son to the grocery store, the library, the community pool, the park, the coffee shop, the family diner, Colonial Williamsburg, church, the basketball game and more (even if we only last a little while.) It’s good for him. It’s good for us. And it’s good for you.
P.S. Don’t get me wrong: Sometimes we do get a sitter and head out for some much needed kid-free outings.
P.P.S. What’s right for us isn’t necessarily what’s right for every autism family. But that’s for each family to decide, not the general public.
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