A couple of months ago, I was stood in a queue in a restaurant when I realised a man was standing very close behind me. I was holding my three-year-old son on my hip and evidently he had thought the same as me, and turned around and hit him in the head.
Now, if this had been either of my other two children, I would have been equally mortified but I would have at least known how to react. I would have made them apologise, told them we weren't eating out and left the restaurant.
I didn't do any of that. If I'm honest, I did nothing. I went redder and redder, tried to pretend it hadn't happened and waited for my table. I'm not a bad mum and I definitely want my children to be kind to other people, but I really don't know how to handle these situations, and that was the third of its kind in the same week.
Of course, what I should have done is told the man the truth. I should have turned to him and said "I am so sorry that he hit you. He has Autism Spectrum Disorder and doesn't like people being too near to him". Something stops me saying it to people though. I've been trying to work out why that is. It is an understandable explanation for a my little boy's behaviour, but somehow I still see it as a slur on my motherhood skills. Yet, in my sensible head I know that of course it isn't. He has been formally diagnosed with a neurological disorder which means that he has very little social skills and lots of frustrations and challenging behaviour.
One of the reasons I find it hard to say the word 'autism' in a conversation with strangers is because it's nice to talk about something else. Strangers won't ask me how speech therapy is going or what kind of support he is going to have at school. In fact, they are more likely to compliment his beautiful eyelashes and golden hair, or smile at the way he adorably tells them to "have a nice day". I crave these little slices of normality where for a moment there is nothing unusual about him.
There is still very little understanding of autism and when it is mentioned, people often know a friend of a friend whose child has autism. The mythical autistic child is often very 'naughty' and these horror stories can be hard to listen to on a regular basis. It is much like being subjected to strangers' birth stories once you are noticeably pregnant.
The reality is that I don't know what I'm doing most of the time. How do you discipline a child who doesn't have any understanding that anyone else has feelings, or even have an understanding of their own self? The naughty step is useless with a child who has no sense of danger and will gladly throw himself down the steps just to see what happen. Trying to talk to him is met with being interrupted with requests for DVDs or food. There is little advice on how to control his behaviour and that is really frightening. I have an eight-year-old and a five-year-old who, aside from the occasional bout of bickering and snatching toys, are very sweet, mild mannered, kind children. I haven't had to deal with violence from children before and I haven't a clue how to go about fixing it, or if fixing it is even possible.
When we are at a park or soft play area, and my little boy hits other children or pushes them over, it breaks my heart. Yet, I am still too embarrassed to tell them that he is autistic. I am fairly knowledgable about autism, but it feels to me that there is still a terrible stigma attached to it. It seems that despite it being a recognised disability, a medical condition, there is still that risk that strangers will use autism as a judgement of your parenting abilities. Instead of being an explanation for horrible behaviours, I worry that a lot of people see it as an excuse.
I think the only way forward is to try and be a bit braver. I won't keep running away from awkward situations with my little boy as he is too amazing to keep to myself, and I love him to bits. I know it would be much simpler if I was just honest with people and explained to them why he is different. I have to trust that people will be understanding, and if they are not, well, I won't see them again anyway.