On one of last week's steamy evenings, there was a free concert in the park -- Jefferson Starship (the newer version of Jefferson Airplane) was performing and thought my son (a musician/composer himself) might find it cool. So off we went with cold water bottles in hand. As the crowd began to gather, it was like a blast from the past -- men wearing tie-dyed shirts that you know they wore in 1968 ... women wearing flowy, flowery long dresses ... couples on blankets clearly reflecting back on days gone by. It was more than a free concert -- it was a return to a time when the world was a different place.
No sooner had the concert started than I noticed a woman with her child -- there were many -- but this one grabbed my attention and kept it throughout. Her child could not have been more than 4-years-old, wearing shorts and with a head of curly blonde hair. But what made me laser-focus in on this child and his mother was the weighted vest he was also wearing. On a 90 degree evening and over a little t-shirt, this child was donning a weighted vest.
As the concert continued, I periodically watched this mother following her child everywhere. He would be aimlessly walking up to people and turning away, strolling along other blankets, and picking up leaves near the trees. He was moving about in his own world, his weighted vest helping to make it possible for him to function. He was autistic and nowhere did this child move without his mother within inches of him. When I finally saw where their blanket was located, what I saw next completed the picture.
There was Dad with their other child, who was even younger, who remained seated throughout. The exhaustion on this man's face was palpable. He watched as his wife and their son walked from here to there, all the while trying -- just for a moment -- to savor the music sans distractions. Mom might have been moving around the park, but Dad was right there too. When the little boy came closer to our blanket, I looked at this child's mother and smiled, the kind of smile that only someone who understood could smile. She smiled back...the kind of a smile that you knew meant a combination of "thanks for understanding," "thanks for not judging," and "I need a break."
Having worked with so many parents of children with autism for years, it was easy -- albeit not simple -- to show her a momentary sign of understanding. I could see the exhaustion in her eyes as well. She walked with her shoulders hunched as if she could have used someone pulling a rope to keep her moving. She said very little to her son yet her silence spoke volumes. Both of these parents were out for the evening, hoping to enjoy some peace and love at a concert where these were the key messages. And while perhaps they were able to capture some of the evening's flavor, autism remained ever-present and unrelenting.
Autism is 24/7/365. It does not take a vacation nor can you put it aside. It does not disappear regardless of whether you're a full-time, stay-at-home parent or a working (outside of the home) parent. It follows you everywhere if you're not leading the way.
If you know someone with a child with autism, understand that it never leaves their side. It's like an additional limb that they need to figure out how to use and how to make it work with the rest of their body. It alters life in countless ways. It brings even the strongest parents to their knees over and over again even if it appears as though they are walking.
If you -- whether a manager, colleague, family member, or friend -- look in their eyes and see that they need a little peace or love, just remember that autism is right beside them. "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" would be their mantra yet "Count On Me" -- if only for a little while -- would be what they would ask from you if they could.