Yesterday I watched a woman gently coax her adolescent son away from the edge of a meltdown. As they headed toward the exit of the store we were all in, he began waving his arms and grunting “No” in a loud voice. “It’s OK, David,” the woman said quietly, stroking his back. “Take a deep breath. It’s OK.”

I caught myself looking over at the two of them. I marveled at her ability to speak only in a tone of tenderness and compassion, not desperation or nervousness or embarrassment at causing a scene.

It’s in moments like this that I wish there was a secret hand gesture, a high-five or a thumbs up, that would let that other person know: “Hey, I’ve been there. I see you. You’re doing a great job. If you need a hand, let me know.”

If she had looked at me, she probably wouldn’t have seen any of that. She would have seen a stranger staring at her, straining to send off vibes of empathy that probably look a lot like pity. And maybe that would have flustered her and caused her pain. So instead, I ignored her, turning back to the rack of dresses as if they were the most interesting thing in the world.

I know so many times I have seen others look at me and my son, who isn’t on the autism spectrum but who has a number of quirky behaviors that seem to captivate the attention of strangers — when he has an accident that soaks through his pants, talks too loudly at movies (usually perseverating on a word or phrase for what feels like an eternity), or turns eating into a full body experience when we’re at a restaurant.

In those moments, I often wish to simply disappear. I just assume that people don’t understand, that they’re judging my son or my ability to parent.

I have to give a special thanks to the recent post on Rhema’s Hope for not only writing, always full of grace, but for pointing out a short segment on the TV show What Would You Do? that shows the reactions that people have to a family with a child on the spectrum when they go out to eat. (Watch the segment here.)

The reactions of the fellow diners made me reflect that maybe I’ve been underestimating people and that there is no need for a secret sign. Can it be that I’m giving strangers too little credit? And what does my discomfort say about me? Is it possible that it has more to do with me than with them?

Maybe the glares I feel are, in fact, filled with empathy and support. Maybe there’s no need for a secret sign. I’m going to play around with that perspective for a while, and see how it feels.  Much to think about.

I’m really curious to know what other folks do in these situations. How do you feel? Does it keep you from going out? Has the feeling changed? How do you show support for strangers, if at all? Do you have a “secret sign”?

Published by Cristin Lind

Facilitator, consultant, speaker for better health and care through patient-professional partnership. Passionate about helping change agents build courage and agency. She/her.

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  1. My secret sign is either catching the mom’s eye and offering an “I get it. I’m with you.” smile (this one may be such a secret sign that only I understand its meaning) or I study the dress rack with fascination like you did (ditto).

    When my babies cried on airplanes I cringed with horror and fear of bothering others in the no-escape venue. Yet most times other people’s crying babies don’t bother me at all.

    So I think you’re on to something abt giving strangers too little credit. Either that or you and I are aligned against the world.

    1. Yes, the crying baby on an airplane is a great parallel. I can totally turn other peoples’ crying babies off. But then again, I have friends without kids who complain about kids on planes. So there’s the rub…some people DO judge and put up a fuss. But I’m going to play around with the idea that they’re just a small segment of the population and see how that feels.

  2. A good friend of mine, who has the most impulsive child I have ever known, was recently asked by a total stranger… what’s wrong with your son?
    She replied… he has TFA syndrome.
    And then turned and mumble …totally freaking awesome syndrome!
    The best response I ever heard!

  3. Hi Cristin! Such a thoughtful post… you’ve hit on so many thoughts/emotions I’ve wrestled with. Why do I feel embarrassed? I know I’m not embarrassed by my daughter or her behavior; I’m more concerned that *I* look like I’m out of control, that I don’t know what to do or how to handle her. But I do believe so many more people are sensitive and aware of the challenges of our kiddos.
    I’ve also had times I wished there was a secret hand gesture! Once I did get to have a brief conversation with another mother who was struggling with her son at the playground, and I think it did more for me than it did for her.

    1. There’s so much to every experience in this parenting thing, isn’t there? Such richness, if we look for it. (Sometimes, too much richness! Just like I don’t always want to eat cake.) That question about why we feel embarrassed is a good one. I took my son out to dinner last night and tried to drop a little of it. No one cared about us! And being less stressed seemed to make it more enjoyable for both of us. Hope to see you soon.

  4. A couple of years ago I was walking along a path at a park with my son and daughter. It was time to go, at least forward, but my son became fixated on the mosquitoes, which he hates. Of course, standing still is about the worst thing you can do when they come looking for a meal. I had tried all my tricks to get him going, with no success, and while I may have been trying to stay calm, I’m sure my desperation was showing. Then an observant Dad came along and said or did something to distract Jeremy and get him moving in the right direction. I don’t remember the exact details. All I know is that it was just subtle enough that we just got unstuck, everybody’s dignity remained intact, and I could just pass on my thanks with eye contact, without having to make a big deal of it in front of my son. I often wish I could help someone like that but have never had the opportunity, and certainly not the insight, to be of use. I do try to look sympathetic and reassuring when I can, but you’re right: it may be misinterpreted.

    1. Maybe you hit it on the head when you said that what the dad did was subtle. If we chose to engage in these kinds of situations of helping others, I think we have to be very in touch with our own intentions and body language and be aware of all the subtleties. If we did that, I have a feeling it would go well.

  5. We had an issue last week. My handsome son can get pretty stubborn and we were trying to get through a particularly difficult episode with my quietly trying to say all of the things that I hoped would unstick him. I got him unstuck and was moving on when another mother (who witnessed the entire event) said to me ~”you are a good mother” It made me feel good…

    1. Now you bring up another subject too–things people say, and how they make us feel. I personally like “you are a good mother” so much more than “he’s so lucky he has such a good mother like you.” Subtle, but significantly different. I like also that she didn’t interfere but did speak up in the end. And she’s right!

  6. Yes, a big (but subtle) difference between “you are a good mother” and “he’s so lucky he has…” I cringe when I hear the latter. I will be watching for an opportunity to say to someone, “you are a good mother.”

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