On Making Autism Visible to Strangers

labelling autistic child in a crowd

For parents, one of the biggest hurdles they face raising a child with autism is the fact that it is a hidden disability. It may not be concealed behind a wall, or in disguise, but there are no trademark physical attributes that would signal public to their disability. As a result, misunderstanding in the form of aggressive criticism is an unfortunate reality parents have to deal with.

Farida Peters of Toronto, Canada is one of those parents. Every weekday, she takes her 5-year-old son Deckard on a seventeen stop subway ride that can last up to an hour so that he can get to his behavioral therapy on time.  Anyone acquainted with autism spectrum disorder knows that such rides can be a nightmare as they involve so many alterations dependent on the day: something Deckard simply cannot deal with.

In the past, he would throw tantrums during their ride when he couldn’t find a seat or didn’t have room to stand. The smallest thing could set him into a tailspin of screeching and stimming as he encountered boundless anxiety in the form of changes in their routine commute. To the uninformed eye, he was simply the petulant child to an overindulgent mother. After months of harsh words and exasperated encounters, Farida came up with a solution to alert her fellow commuters to what was actually going on.

Recently, Farida began clipping a laminated sign to her backpack that states: “My son is 5 years old and has autism. Please be patient with us. Thank you.” Though she’s met criticism for publicly labeling her child, Farida defends herself, saying “Honestly, I don’t always have time to apologize to everyone when I’m in crisis mode. I try to, but I have a kid who needs a lot of support.”

Despite some admonishments from close friends, the sign has improved Farida and Deckard’s commute drastically. Behavior that would once provoke an angry sigh or glare from a stranger now results in a reassuring hand on Farida’s back, and people asking how best they can accommodate her son.

The encouragement and support has comforted Farida immensely during times of duress; however, it’s proven even better for Deckard. Of course, his anxiety is now alleviated by the kindness of strangers; however, even better is the fact that people now engage him in positive conversation. Someone may see the sign and compliment him on his shirt or good behavior; others may simply offer a smile or a silly face. Regardless of the form the kindness comes in, it’s reinforced Deckard’s good behavior.

There’s an African proverb that claims that: “It takes a village to raise a child.” For Farida and her husband, the encouragement and kindness they’ve received as a result of her sign couldn’t prove this better.

Sara Power, Fordham University