A couple years ago, my wife and children and I visited a large Knoxville church for a beloved nephew’s solo. He sang wonderfully, and we all met him up front afterwards and congratulated him on his accomplishment.
I slowly became aware of an unfamiliar woman hovering behind us and repeatedly making eye contact with me. I thought perhaps I knew her from somewhere. Not so. Our family dispersed, and I placed my hand on my son Jacob’s shoulder and guided him toward the sanctuary exit. Then she charged.
“Sir, I noticed that now and during the service, you kept putting your arm around that young man.”
Taken aback, I responded, “Yes, you mean my son?”
She barged ahead. “Do you really think it is appropriate to have your arm around him so frequently?”
I was floored by her forwardness but thought a simple explanation would help: “My son has autism and struggles when has to sit quietly for a long time. I place my arm around him to comfort and reassure him.”
The woman persisted. “Well, I have experience with abused children, and your son looks uncomfortable with your inappropriate touching.”
With that horrific phrase, my tension mounted exponentially, and my body language must have reflected it because my family members abruptly returned. I briefly related her concerns while my mind reeled with the accusation.
At that moment, I hated that woman more than I have ever hated any other human being on earth. I hated the pastors waiting a few feet away at the pulpit and near the exit as they averted their eyes from an increasingly heated situation. And . . . I hated God.
In Jacob’s youth, I grew thick skin, hardening to the public’s general ignorance about autism, which often bears no physical clues to explain a child’s unusual behavior. I learned to tactfully handle guidance from strangers on how to silence my screaming, kicking 2-year-old. I learned to explain that the simple echo of sound through a megastore could overwhelm the ears of what some termed “that little brat.” Eventually, I learned to shrug off the all too frequent approach of these self-appointed experts and even to respond kindly, handing out a specially printed card offering insight into autism and suggesting informative websites.
Now a teenager, Jacob has made monumental progress from his days as a non-verbal, screaming toddler, and my preparedness for this lady’s approach had dwindled with the passing of years since I’d been required to offer up a defense. Rather than the old thick skin, I found myself as raw with emotion as immediately after his diagnosis. And even then, people had insulted my parenting skills but never accused me of “inappropriate touching.”
I told my children to follow me outside, careful not to actually place a hand upon any of them as the woman’s perception penetrated my soul. My family remained behind to continue the heated debate with this confident accuser while I sat in silence with my children in the parking lot. I am told that my mother-in-law in particular schooled her thoroughly in the error of her ways, yet she never relented.
As I drove away, my wife beside me in the passenger seat and my children silent in the back, my hands clenched the steering wheel hard enough to leave indentations. My wife finally broke the silence, whispering, “You can cry if you need to.”
So I did.
My wife and I married long after the most challenging years with Jacob, and this was her first experience of unsolicited instruction from strangers. Having worked in child protection in Knox and surrounding counties for several years, my wife assured me that this lady was no wise social worker seeing something others could not. More likely, my physical affection and reassurance to my son had triggered some dark memory in the woman herself of something far less benign in her own life.
What haunts me is that, in my mind and to some degree in reality, Jacob remains a sweet 6-year-old struggling to cope with challenges that most others sail through. I don’t know many 15-year-olds who still routinely watch Thomas the Tank Engine and Elmo and devoutly believe in Santa despite me gently revealing the truth more than 5 years ago. He chose to ignore it, so Santa will visit our house as long as Jacob chooses.
Jacob can still be easily distracted and require frequent redirection to stay focused and behave appropriately in certain situations, some of which would prompt a loving father to place his arm around his 5-year-old and whisper, “You’re doing good, buddy. We’re almost done.”
Only my son is now 15 with the hint of a mustache, and my arm around his shoulder has been perceived as “inappropriate.” That experience has faded into a chaotic fog in my memory, yet it hovers in the back of my mind even now when I am in public with Jacob.
But I continue my physical affection and reassurance to my son, misunderstanding public be damned. Someday, Lord willing, Jacob will be a 30-year-old man, his full beard tinged with a little Collins red on the chin. An onlooker might see a 61-year-old man with more than a little gray in his own beard, arm wrapped securely around the younger man and offering reassuring whispers.
That’s the future I choose.
Whether it arrives or not is between me and God.
© Michael L. Collins
*This column appeared in the June 1, 2016 edition of The Mountain Press.
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