It's complicated, figuring out how to interact with your Autistic child in public. Do I make it obvious that he is navigating a disability? There is a real upside to making your kids issues obvious. It generates sympathy, accommodation and hopefully a little less judgment from others.
The judgement issue is huge. We all have had our horrific experiences in public. When your trying to teach 'how' to behave in public it usually means having public meltdowns. When Alex was 10 he walked out of Target with a video I hadn't noticed. It was that classic moment where you think 'Just go home, take the video from him and go home.' My problem was that Alex learns patterns fast and if this video made it home I knew I was in trouble. We walked back to customer service, sat down and I explained that we had to leave the video here. it wasn't on our list, I explained, taking a video without paying for it is against the rules and if he returned it we could come back tomorrow and buy it. Total chaos ensued. The calmer I stayed the angrier Alex got. Alex was mad, he let me and all of customer service know it. Things ended with Alex bolting out the doors of Target and running to our car. Best part? A stranger in the parking lot yelled that I was putting my kid in danger letting him run in the parking lot. A beautiful public Autism moment.
For a long time I was a snowplow mom, people were going to know that Alex was different and give us a wide berth. I'd use a different kind of speech pattern with him when we were in public, a little slower, highly edited kind of speech. It was effective at getting Alex's and usually others attention. I called it my therapist voice. The problem with being a snowplow? Nobody attempts to communicate with Alex. People realized something was up with my kid, I seemed in charge so lets just ignore the kid and talk to the mother. All this opportunity for social interaction goes to waste.
So we changed direction. We knew Alex could handle certain social situations like ordering fast food or paying for groceries. Lets stand with him but opt out of the social interaction. Let's let Alex take the lead.
Want to see 'uncomfortable' with a small side of judgement? Stand next to your kid while he's ordering food, watch as the cashier doesn't quite make out what he's saying, stand silently facing your kid as the cashier stares at you and says "What did he say?" Repeat 3-4 times until the cashier finally figures out what was ordered. Alex learned fast but the public, not so much.
But Alex learned. That was the goal here. It was a struggle (and still is) for me to not get frustrated with other peoples reactions. I knew this was working for Alex, he would bound into the store, reach out for my debit card and take his place in line. Alex wanted this independence. He was ready to do the work. But public reaction is always a struggle.
There are bright spots. At Alex's regular spots he's now known by name. People know what he's going to order and want him to succeed. I force myself to remember this when faces with somebody that decides to treat Alex like he's an annoyance.
I'm working to be more like Jennifer. She is hardcore when it comes to independence. Jennifer has been known to crouch below counter level when faced with a cashier that refuses to deal with Alex. Or tell them point blank that they just need to listen to what Alex is saying. It's a beautiful thing to watch.
About 5 years ago I started rethinking how I talk to Alex in public. I began to notice that people look to me to set the tone. I'm now obsessed with speaking to Alex in a typical way. He gets treated just like my other teenagers. Now that Alex is 5'7'' if he is in a bouncy mood he stands out quickly. Alex gets stared at and then eyes quickly travel to me. You can feel people thinking 'What the heck is going on with that kid? Is that the mom? Should I be worried?' Here is where setting the tone is so important. You can hover but it often just elevates the tension. People sense that your anxious so they get anxious. Now your just sitting in a ball of tension and any chance of independence goes out the window. Everyone just wants the interaction to end as quickly as possible.
Were in line at the grocery store and it's crowded. It's our turn, "Hey Alex can you unload the groceries and then get my debit card out of my purse to pay?". No slow language, no forced eye contact, just typical language as were emptying the cart. Alex is probably jumpy so we get 2 or 3 big jumps in place. Suddenly all eyes are on us, were on everyones radar. "Don't forget the chicken under the cart." I say, ignoring the jumps and the eyes. Alex quickly gets the chicken and then looks at me. "I think my debit card is in my wallet." I say distractedly. "Remember it's my pin number not yours." I remind him. Now people generally get confused. They know something is up with my kid but because I'm talking to him normally they feel forced to behave typically. I've set the tone and it says that Alex is just like the rest of us. Treat him normally. And surprisingly, it usually works out that way. They ask Alex if he wan't the receipt, they hand it to him, and Alex says thank you. Alex may not be seen as typical but he's being treated as if he is.