The problem with autistic children is they grow up to be autistic teenagers and then, autistic adults who no longer seem so cute when they are stimming, avoiding eye contact or simply displaying any autistic traits that they have not outgrown. They might not screech, walk on their tippy toes or line things up (although some children never outgrow these, others do), they are still socially awkward and very much autistic. All you have to do is approach them and you will soon discover that "something's just not right". You don't need to be a rocket scientist to figure this out. It's as clear as day.
Before I tell you about my experience at the Crate and Barrel at the Burlington Mall in Burlington, MA; let me tell you that I have been shopping at this store for years. GP knows this store, and he is free to browse independently, as long as he does not leave the store. He carries an iPhone so I can call him if I can't see him, or he can't see me. Before we enter the store we have a set amount of time to "browse". Say twenty minutes, and when time is up, I make my final selections and check out, or just leave without making a purchase. This is not a routine specific to C&B, this is a routine we follow to ensure that GP is comfortable with the schedule. It is an adaptive behavior that I have taught him to reduce his stress while being out, doing necessary things; grocery shopping, shoe shopping, whatever. A time of departure is necessary at the time of arrival to ensure good behavior. It reduces anxiety and gives me the time I need to get things done. This brings me to yesterday's trip to the Burlington Mall.
I have a gift card to Crate and Barrel and I love their stores. The one at the BM is the closest one to us, and hence, the one we go to a few times a year. GP knows the store and is free to roam independently while I shop (usually for 20 minutes... sometimes I get a whole 30, but a quick stop is only 20. Beggars can't be choosers!). Yesterday, while I was browsing the furniture upstairs I spotted GP on the other side of the room. He was actually holding up a wood ball and using his peripheral vision to look at it. He was stimming and after a couple of seconds he just put it down and walked away. I moved on to the end of the room and he came to check on me, and remind me that it was almost time to go. I agreed and told him I was almost done. He left me there, and a few minutes later I went downstairs and was getting ready to make my final selections when a gentleman in a blue jacket approached me, and asked me if "That young man, is with you?" and I looked at him and smiled and said, "Well, yes he is. He's my son." and I thought nothing of it, but the man approached me again, and then he said, "Oh, so he is OK?" I looked at him and asked, "WHY? Did you ask him something? (GP is autistic, he is not the most social child, if you know what I mean...) Gene Paul..." GP comes over and I ask him, "Did you speak to this gentleman?" and GP says, "Oh, no. He's a stranger! I'm sorry, stranger. I'm Gene Paul." OMG! I had to laugh... and I did. I told the gentleman that GP is autistic and he doesn't talk to strangers. and I am getting ready to move on when the man says to me, "I'm mall security and was called over from the mall to check on him. I'll just go tell the ladies at the desk that he's with you, what's your name? Just so I can tell them."
WHAT? Are you kidding me? I said to him, "My son is not a danger to himself or others. I do not see how anyone can feel threatened by a young man who is minding his business and not being disruptive. He is alone because he is learning independent living skills!"which include, being in a store without someone hovering over you. He said he would tell the ladies at the desk, who when I looked over, seemed to be huddled together looking at us and chatting.
Holy smokes! Now, does that mean that if I return to Crate and Barrel at the Burlington Mall (not that I ever would), I should check in at the desk and let them know that my autistic teenager, who paces the store alone, and does not talk to strangers while waiting for me, is not a shoplifter or terrorist?? Would they like me put a kiddie leash on him, or simply prefer that I leave him at home when I shop at their store so their employees don't feel threatened??? It's not like he appeared to be a hobo wandering around. He is dressed in chinos, shoes and a henley.. he is clean shaved and has a fresh haircut to boot. His shirt is tucked into his pants, he is wearing a belt and he doesn't even have a jacket. Did they suspect he was going to stuff a fork in his pants and make a run for it? Really???? What exactly seemed so threatening that they needed to call over MALL SECURITY ??????? Not the store security, the MALL SECURITY!!!!
I would have walked over to the ladies and given them a little bit of "awareness" seeing how April is National Autism Awareness Month and GP displays textbook autism characteristics; stimming, social awkwardness, repetitive behaviors (pacing the store)...but I was too shocked to do anything other than leave.
I believe that Crate and Barrel's employees could use a little sensitivity training. Seeing how one in every 88 children that walk into their stores is likely to have some form of autism, maybe they can be taught to spot the obvious characteristics. Stimming is pretty obvious, maybe that could be a good starting point. If they don't want to invest in training maybe they can put a little basket by the door with neon bracelets so parents can tag their kids when they walk in and they can shop in peace knowing that mall security won't be called to the store to track their kid, who is minding his business but "acting strange" (He's autistic; he ALWAYS acts this way! DUH!) One in every eighty-eight children will grow up to be an autistic teenager who will then become an autistic adult. Would someone please tell Crate & Barrel that being autistic, or pacing in their store is not a crime and it is VERY offensive to be followed around because you act like someone with autism when you are autistic!
A little sensitivity training would go a long way in this store... maybe a few autism awareness pamphlets with their paychecks would help too.