December 5, 2011

A Friendly Smile

Posted in Life's Little Moments, My Take on Autism tagged , , , , , , at 11:36 am by autismmommytherapist

We’re only twenty-five minutes into the movie, just long enough for the Machiavellian plot to raze the Muppets Theater to be revealed, when I notice that Justin has dumped his popcorn all over the floor. This action is quickly followed by him flinging his body across mine in order to zip up his “goody bag”, which is the universal sign for “let’s get the hell out of here”. I offer him juice, and am met with unmitigated rejection. I pop out my trusty lanyard, which along with the plastic container I’ve used to parcel out his treat is unceremoniously thrust back toward the now-zipped bag. Last, there’s the accompanying chaser of him pushing my hand toward the zipper.

Justin and I have a moment of eye contact where he makes it clear to me that none of my ABA tricks will work today, thank you very much. After getting him to reclaim his seat and be calm for a micro-second (always end on a good note), we rise. He joyfully scoots up the aisle, his “eeees” ringing round this sensory friendly showing of the movie, and I reluctantly follow.  I am uncharacteristically annoyed (he usually makes it at least an hour, and I generally don’t care about the denouement of childrens’ films since we end up owning them all anyway), and somewhat sluggish as I traipse after him.

I’m not concerned about his noisiness, as one of the things I love most about coming here once a month is the “anything goes” atmosphere, so I take a moment to visually scan the theater, just to see what’s going on. There’s a child in the back having a huge meltdown, while his mother and sister try to cajole him back to his seat. A little girl is running around the theater, arms flapping at her sides with her mother in close pursuit. A teen-ager is standing in the other aisle, raptly focused on the plot lines of a story I’ll probably bring Zach to see just so I can learn the ending. Nobody’s looking at anyone. There’s no judgment about behavior here. Our little troupe of autism families is simply focused on getting as much enjoyment out of the show as possible. Usually, for me, that would be enough.

Except today, it isn’t.

Today, I’m tired. My husband has been hacking up a lung for five days now, and both kids seem on the cusp of illness themselves. I’ve had ten meetings/doctor appointments in the last six days due to my lapse in temporary scheduling insanity, and I’m beat. Frankly, today, I just wanted to sit for an hour-and-a-half while stealing hits from my son’s popcorn stash and let my mind rest. I simply wanted, for once, to be still. Is that so much to ask?

Today, apparently, it is.

I’m muttering under my breath as I approach the exit, because I figure nobody in this theater will even notice this slight detour from appropriate behavior, and I happen to glance up at a woman sitting on the aisle a few rows in from the entrance. She has her small son in her lap, bouncing up and down with stimmy sounds and movements, joyful in his anticipation of Kermit. I watch her eyes as they’re drawn to my son’s rapid and vocal departure, then see them slide to me as I attempt to intercept Justin before he hits the hallway. Our eyes meet, and she smiles at me, a smile that contains compassion, understanding, and irony, all wrapped up in one slight upsweep of lips. This woman clearly knows the deal.

Yup. Got all that from a facial expression. I’m that good.

I return the favor with a look that I hope expresses thanks, and catch up with my wayward son before he barrels into a toddler making his sturdy way to the restrooms. That brief look of empathy, that glimpse of community, is not enough to entirely dissipate my irritation. I’ve dropped thirty bucks on this aborted adventure, roughly the cost of a speech therapy session or six frappacinos. There is a mountain of perfectly good buttery non-trans-fat popcorn gracing the theater floor from which I will never get to graze. Today, my tired, middle-aged body will only get to sit the length of a sit-com.

Sucks for me.

And yet, for a brief moment in time, somebody else understood this crazy, upside-down world within which my family frequently resides. With just one glance, I could tell this nice mom sometimes dwells there too. And no, it’s not enough to make the frustration of my son’s often limited world go away.

It was just a look, a few seconds of someone’s time. But it helped. And to that autism mommy, wherever she is, I send out a shout of thanks.

For a listing of Sensory Friendly Films (scroll down to the bottom for future months), please see:


  1. yep. sometimes tiny connections with other moms make all the difference in being able to hold it together,totally get it!

  2. Aw, I love this story. It mirrors some of our outings. That look of identification is huge, we are a clan indeed.

  3. Shivon said,

    those moments of understanding are gigantic.

  4. Misifusa said,

    I love that one special moment can mean so much ~ I get it ~ and it’s so appreciated. It’s that connection that we all strive for! 🙂

  5. Kathy said,

    It’s amazing that a brief connection with a stranger can convey so much! (On the upside, there’s always more popcorn!)

  6. Love this story… You know you’ve “crossed over” when you feel more relaxed around families whose kids flap, avoid eye contact, and talk ‘inappropriately.’ I can let my guard down about judgment. Thank you for putting it into words. — Michelle

    • I used to teach, it really helped me move past all of that, but I really needed her smile that morning. Thanks for reading!

  7. You are a good mother.

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