Stares and Whispers


The kindness you receive from strangers is such a rare thing when you’re part of a family touched
by special needs. So when you get it, you want to embrace it as much as you can.

The stares in the cereal aisle. The whispers from the customer behind you in line. The snickers from the table next to you.

All of these are things we all want to avoid experiencing. Especially when already dealing with a tantrum, or peeing on the restaurant floor, or a bin being dumped over. The mean comments are judgmental looks that are not only hurtful, but are impossible to ignore.

The kindness you receive from strangers is such a rare thing when you’re part of a family touched by special needs. So when you get it, you want to embrace it as much as you can.

But what about when you’ve been going back and forth with your child for 45 minutes in the store over not getting something that isn’t on the grocery list, or when a restaurant is taking too long to bring their food? Of course, you don’t want to just give in and give them whatever they want. You can’t just give them the candy they are requesting at the store or leave the restaurant. Although it might be easier, it is going to reinforce the behavior and it will most likely happen again because they got what they wanted. Plus, you need to live your life too. You can’t continue to postpone grocery trips or never have the pleasure of eating out.

So, you don’t give in. But now, a stranger comes up and tries to cheer up your child. On one hand, you are given the break and it is such a breath of fresh air to meet someone who isn’t staring at you in disgust or trying to give you parenting tips. But, now, you have this perfectly nice human giving your child some of the most friendly attention you’ve ever experienced out in public. Even when your child is behaving perfectly fine, people still stare and make comments – because they can tell he or she is a “little” different. What do you do? Do you let them give your child positive attention, even though it may reinforce the bad behavior? Something you have been fighting over for the last 45 minutes, and now it could all go down the drain because you don’t want to tell this nice stranger to please not give them any attention?

You could stop and explain it to them, but you’re still juggling all of your items in the aisle and dealing with your child’s behaviors. And what if they don’t get it? What if they take it wrong? What if they never approach a “different” child again because of what you just said? Hopefully they won’t, and they probably won’t. If they took the time to stop and try to help, they probably get it to some degree. Even if they don’t understand, they probably appreciate what they just learned. Your words shouldn’t change the good-hearted person that they are. And it won’t. But these are the things that enter our heads because we come in contact with so few accepting people. We want more people like them in our lives. Even if it means losing the battle with the child.

Even when we say we don’t care what other people think, there is still that unconscious need for others to approve. Whether it’s the petty high school game we’ve all played, or hoping a manager likes us enough to hire us, we never escape it. And we definitely can’t escape it when we are in the middle of seeing our child throwing a tantrum, or a child who just had an accident in the middle of the grocery store.

Sometimes I wonder if my brother lucked out on that. I don’t know if he experiences those thoughts. While I am totally comfortable in my own skin, I still find my mind wandering to those soul-killing questions: Are they talking about me? What do you think about me?

So if my brother doesn’t feel like this, did he luck out? Or is he missing out on a natural human feeling?

So, we feel those things and may want to just give up. I know what it is like to leave a restaurant or store because my brother is upset. We’re embarrassed. It’s not so much that it is easier to do, but it is almost for the caregiver’s sanity. It would just be easier to use a drive-thru. It would just be easier to go grocery-shopping later on your own – if you can go on your own — you might have to hire a babysitter or leave work early. Even taking off work or paying a babysitter should be easier than dealing with this.

From a professional point of view, seeing a family leave – and just give in – is the worst thing to do to keep that behavior from happening again. The child got what he or she wanted, and if he or she  wants it again, they are going to behave that way again to get it because it worked before.

Even though I know that it works to keep going, keep pushing through, and don’t give in – it’s better for the long run. I know from personal experience how much easier it is to just give in. It’s hard to keep going, because you’ve been going for what – 19 years? You don’t just have this child to teach a certain skill in the community. You have dinner to make for your whole family. You just worked a nine hour day. You have bills to pay. Your other child has a cross-country meet you’re running late for. You have to clean the house.

I get what it’s like to be exhausted and just need two things from the store. You think you can run in real quick and grab it, but before you get to the check-out line, your sibling isn’t having it anymore and the trip is over. Just those two things you needed. That quick 10-minute trip turns into a sweaty, mentally-exhausting, hour-long mess.

So what should we do? Sometimes it’s absolutely impossible to do what we are supposed to do. Sometimes, we are just too tired. Sometimes, we just want to feel the comfort of the public’s  acceptance. And that’s totally understandable. But are we making it worse for us in the future? Do we even care in that moment? Even though I’ve seen the research, I’ve done it in practice. I know that it works. Sometimes, it is just not reasonable to expect families to push through. To ignore the one nice stranger they’ve met in six months. To forget about what other people may be thinking. To get the break that every family of someone with specials needs deserves. •

1Paige Talhelm is 24 years of age living in Baltimore, MD. She is currently a student at Johns Hopkins for her Master’s degree in Education of Autism and Pervasive Disorders. She is also working as a Behavior Data Specialist at Kennedy Krieger Institute on the Neurobehavioral Unit working with individuals with severe self-injurious and aggressive behavior. She hopes to one day create a program for continued education, job searching, life skills, etc. for individuals with Autism after 21. Please continue to read about her life as Sammy’s sister on her blog:

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