Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Autism Answer: Going Out To Dinner - The Gift of Mom's Social Challenges

Growing up with a socially strange mom had its challenges, and most of them were made up in my head.

When all eight of us kids were small, growing up with a single mom struggling financially, you'd imagine going out for meals would be an almost never experience. And yet, because my mom knows the value of learning social skills and loves teaching in real world environments, and because eating has to be done anyway, going out to dinner happened almost every month.

Learning social skills was a pretty big deal in our house! My mom had adopted six of her eight kids, and five of my six adopted siblings had various brain dysfunctions and disabilities. Fetal alcohol syndrome, autism, Irlene Synrome, Tourette's, the list of words we learned while growing up with my adopted brothers is almost endless. Of course, because my mom herself grew up with similar words thrown at her, she never saw words when looking at us kids. She saw people.

However, people in the restaurants we visited didn't usually follow her lead. To them we were messy, loud, rude, inconvenient, and scary. And for too many years, I was on their team.

I liked eating in restaurants because it meant not having the chore of doing dishes. But I found myself always apologizing for my family, especially my brothers. And I found myself wishing my mom wouldn't so rudely expect the world to be accepting in ways it obviously couldn't be.

And anyway, why should it? My brother might steal a french fry from a neighboring plate and my other brother might climb the table or put his lips on your fork, while us teenage girls would likely laugh too loud and make inappropriate jokes, and my mom would just look at both patrons and staff with a curt smile and expect them to be okay with it. Believing that as the strangers watched her explain to my jumping, stimming, squealing brothers why they couldn't steal or lick people's forks, while she allowed us girls to get away with a little rambunctious behavior as she reminded us to watch our language, they'd see she was dealing with us and they would understand that raising a family takes a village. Mom would expect them to understand that we had as much right to go out to dinner as anyone. 
And almost always at some point during the meal she'd let everyone know that it was too cold in the restaurant and she had to go now. That we needed doggy bags and the bill now.

My mom had sensory issues and synesthesia, and assumed the world dealt with similar issues. My mom had a brilliant mind that saw bigger than "right now" or "normal" and she imaged the world did too. She had an overflowing basket of children and love and bills and challenges and persecution and expected the world to offer understanding, or at least try to.

But going out to dinner often, for me, meant denying mom's wishes. I mumbled apologies and I begged mom to do the same. I gave waiters and cashiers apologetic glances and looked at my own family with troubled eyes that saw mess and inconvenience.

Why did I care so much about the strangers? Why did I care so much that I would apologize in front of my brothers, hinting to them that they were a problem we were carrying around?

Because despite my mom teaching me otherwise I let the staring and fear of strangers speak louder than love, that's why. Because despite the truth that we did deserve to go out for dinner as much as anyone I let the looks and discomfort of strangers tell me otherwise.

But it's also true that my mom's socially strange ways didn't let her put artificial politeness ahead of people. Especially not her people.

Going out to restaurants with my family was about teaching my brothers, my sisters, and I social skills, while giving mom a hard earned almost impossible to pay for tiny break from cooking never-ending meals. It was not supposed to be about apologizing for our challenges. 
While I apologized, mom taught. While I felt embarrassed, mom felt encouraged by little lessons learned. Lessons I was too distracted to notice or celebrate, busy as I was apologizing.

But mom wasn't just patient with my brothers, she was also patient with me; teaching me. And over time, I too learned to teach and celebrate rather than apologize. And quickly we all grew healthier.

I began to see all of us through the eyes of mom, eyes that saw us all as beautifully capable.

Going out to dinner with my family now is still noisy, but inclusive. We are friendly and largely appreciated by patrons and staff. We are certainly strange, but kind. 
We are unlikely to apologize. And that's the magic.

My mom was socially challenged and rarely saw what we would want to apologize for.

I have finally been gifted with that social challenge too!

Hugs, smiles, and love!! 
Autism Answers with Tsara Shelton (Facebook)

Dinner at a friends house!

*For more stories and lessons I (eventually!) learned thanks to growing up with such a wildly weird and wonderful family, please read my book: Spinning in Circles and Learning from Myself: A Collection of Stories that Slowly Grow Up.