Autism, by way of explanation

It happened again the other day.

This time it was while we were clothes shopping. Jewel was in a dressing room, copping ‘tude about my advice as she was trying on clothes for middle school. I reminded her that I was quite prepared to send her off to her first day dressed in last year’s elementary-school clothes (gasp!) unless she showed a little gratitude. Typical mom-daughter bantamweight sparring.

We were back out in the store when an older woman came and spoke directly to Jewel, saying something about overhearing us and that she tells her granddaughter to be quiet because she gets more that way. Jewel gave the woman her best “icy glare” and said something to me to the effect of, “Get rid of her” while marching away to hide behind some nearby racks. The woman looked at me expectantly, in my mind waiting for me to chastise Jewel for her behavior.

So it happened. I told the woman: “She’s autistic.”

My reasons aren’t simple as to why I said this to the woman, or why I have said it to others in similar situations. In this case, I said it because I was defensive about my girl showing some defiance and my mothering skills being judged. I said it so she doesn’t judge Jewel’s imperious attitude too harshly. I said it to try to explain what autism, which is invisible until it is all too visible, means in this one case, with this one child.

I wouldn’t go into a lengthy explanation with this woman. I wouldn’t tell her all about Jewel’s bias against older people, especially grandmotherly types. A bad experience with a retirement-age teacher and my estranged relationship with my mother has honed that bias to a near obsession. We are working on it, of course, but I knew the die was cast when this woman came up to Jewel.

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I also wouldn’t tell her of Jewel’s obsession with fashion, and that our running commentary in the dressing room that she overheard had begun years before that day and would continue for years after her unsolicited advice was forgotten. Jewel, in her own mind, is a fashion maven, and the woman should have been thanking her for getting to overhear her wisdom, not chastising her for bossing me around a bit.

Is it a cop-out to use “She’s autistic” as short-hand to say, “Thanks, but leave it alone, it’s not helping.” OK, to be real, is it a cop-out to use “She’s autistic” to say, “Mind your own beeswax,  lady?”

Jewel is aware she is autistic (we told her about age 8 and fill in the blanks as she gets older), so it’s not an issue of her hearing this. Sometimes, when I am talking to someone new while we are out and about, she will stage whisper to me, “Mom, should you tell them about the thing, you know, the thing?” if I am front loading and/or demurring about an activity or event.

I’ve been adamant with her that it isn’t an excuse, it’s an explanation. And when I said it to that woman in the store, and at other times, I did mean it as an explanation, but I worry the short-hand could get lost in translation, with some seeing it as an excuse, or worse, Jewel seeing it as an excuse.

What would you think if a stranger were to tell you of his or her child’s autism after certain behaviors? Would you see it as an excuse or explanation? If you have an autistic child, do you tell strangers about the autism in such scenarios? I’m curious if I am oversharing in these situations, so please share!


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