While visiting the children’s section of our new public library, my son asked if he could play at the train table. The train table, connected to two other tables – the Lego table and a Light Table, was a standard wooden table. Probably best suited for toddlers and young children, my seven year old boy with Autism found it an irresistible allure of trains and wheels with the way they all line up.
Last week’s more crowded Grand Opening, seemed overwhelming. This week seemed manageable, so I coached him on what to say to the two children playing. I reminded him to only ask for one train, and see if they were willing to share. I told him it never hurts to ask but to accept their answer either way. I felt nervous for him as he walked over to them. You never know how kids are going to respond. He smiled, made eye contact and asked, “Can I have a train please?” One little boy looked back and gladly handed him a train.
I was proud of my son as I sat down in a seat and thought, “Wow. He did it!” He was happy and playing with his one little train in one corner of the table…but then it happened. He started with the side-eyed look, watching the wheels and moving the train back and forth in and out of his periphery vigorously while making some fast hybrid train-racecar sounds. One of the surrounding mothers walked over to my son and took the train out of his hand, without a word and without explanation and gave it back to the other little boy.
I quickly gathered my emotions so I could ask some open-ended questions about the interaction. Before too long I had learned the exchange occurred for two main reasons: 1.) There was a process, a set of rules, for checking out trains and using the train tables and while sharing was encouraged it was not required, and 2.) The mother seemed to be protecting her children from having to deal with a child that was different than her children.
Life is full of rules. I personally have always considered myself a (self-declared) champion of rules. When I play board games, I insist that I have a thorough understanding of rules up front – because the person who knows the rules can make the best decisions throughout the course of the game, trap others in the game by knowing all the ways to win or the penalties for not following the rules, be sure that everyone else complies, and insure she will not be a victim of cheating from other players at any point during the game. (This goes suitably with my competitive, controlling, perfectionistic tendencies).
Furthermore, sharing is hard sometimes; I get it. I am an only child! A month after I got married, my dad asked me what the hardest part about being married was and I replied, sharing my stuff! Maybe this mom had some difficulty letting go of what a perfect day at the library looked like with her children. I know I have had to recalculate moments in real time because they did not live up to my expectations. Admittedly, grabbing the train from a child without having the conversation first, might have replayed with regret in her mind later. Truthfully, had she seen inside my heart and my mind, she would have found some unpleasant things there in that moment as well. So clearly, we both have much to learn.
What is probably most disturbing about this story to an Autism mom, is the turning point of the story – the moment when the stimming started. (Stimming, for those not familiar with Autism, is short for self-stimulatory behavior: a repetition of movements, sounds, or repetitive movement of objects common in individuals prevalent in people with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Common examples are hand-flapping, rocking, spinning, or repeating words or phrases. My son enjoys bringing things in and out of his periphery to them to see them differently.) When my son began stimming with the train he had, something frightened this mother. She seemed okay with him playing until this behavior began. Purely speculative…but she may have been afraid of how it would impact her children. Maybe she was doing her best to protect them from having to face hard realities that some kids are different. Maybe she was afraid her kids were noticing and would ask embarrassing questions… I really do not know why she responded the way she did.
Truthfully, the only one who knows all hearts and all thoughts is God. He is quite capable of dealing with whatever actually happened at the train table, while also dealing with how I internally handled the situation. My heart was filled with judgment, and anger, and hurt – and if all God had to deal with was my heart, it would be plenty.
23 Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
24 See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.