I have always been more of an observer than a participant. I'm the person to whom, in a group of people, someone more outgoing will always comment, "You're so quiet? Aren't you having fun?" To which I reply, "Yeah! I'm fine," while seeing the doubt in their eyes as inside I'm cursing that person for drawing attention to me.
In a small group setting, I thrive. Personal, intimate interaction is my comfort zone. A few close friends, or even prospective friends, and I open up for conversation. Those who have known me for any amount of time know this about me and don't expect any more of me. I try to be more outgoing, really, I do, but my comfort level is just part of who I am and after nearly 34 years and ample opportunity to change, well, it ain't gonna happen.
So, being the observer and people watcher that I am, it took some time to adjust to all the attention that comes with having a child who draws a lot of eyes to himself. At first, when Jacob was 2 two and three, I'd reassure myself that he wasn't so obviously different, and that most people probably didn't recognize his autistic behaviors as anything more than the terrible twos. As he has gotten older, larger, louder, and further behind his peers, the obvious can't be hidden. I am acutely aware of all the stares, conversations behind hands, and open-mouthed gawking that happens on a daily basis.
For a while, say ages 3-5, it made me self-conscious, a little embarrassed, and very uncomfortable to be so exposed in such an awkward way. I'd glare back, make under-my-breath comments about rude, starring people, and generally avoided taking Jacob anywhere that included strangers and typical kids. But I came to accept that this is a part of life with an autistic child, and slowly retrained myself to react differently.
It took some time and trial and error but these days, if you were to run across my son and I in public, you'd see a smiling mom who doesn't mind the unaware and uninformed wondering what is happening with this curious child. I might smile at you or roll my eyes at my own situation as I wrangle him to the car. Say simply, "He's autistic," when I see you wondering why Jacob is so different and difficult. Or, very commonly, I'll laugh and apologize as he tightly hugs a complete stranger, hoping you will see he is harmless and not so scary.
These days when I am out without Jacob and I see a parent in a similar situation to mine, my reaction is one that I wished had been given to me back when it was so hard to be seen as different. I always smile, make eye contact. greet the child regardless of how aware the child is and, if opportunity presents itself, tell the exhausted and overly-protective parent that I have a child like theirs. I hope this makes them feel less alone. I want this to say that I see them, see their efforts, and know how hard it can be to raise a special needs child.
I hope by this change in my reaction, that I am teaching people that being different is OK, that being the quiet one in a group of talkers, or the sweat pant-clad mom dragging a tantruming kid around in a store full of supermodels doesn't make me any less.
I am still trying to think of a witty comeback to the "aren't you having fun?" comment because, yes, I am.