Every other month on a Wednesday my autistic daughter has a half-day of school. The purpose of this half-day is for the staff to have in-service training, or continuing education. I think it’s fantastic that the program in which she’s involved believes that staying up-t0-date on education techniques and awareness are so important. But at the same time I hate those half-days. It means time alone with my daughter, which takes away from my own alone time, but also figures for awkward silences whatever we decide to do together.
One of things she always wants to do on these half-days is go out to lunch. Until recently she was happy with McDonald’s drive thru, but now she wants a sit-down restaurant. I didn’t really want to take her, because I didn’t feel like staring at my food while she woofed down hers (if you’re unfamiliar with the term “woofing down” it means eating really quickly). Also, she’s awkward in conversation especially one-on-one, is clumsy with her utensils and doesn’t always remember to chew with her mouth closed, so the idea of having lunch, even in a casual diner establishment made me nervous.
It’s not that I’m embarrassed BY my daughter, but sometimes I’m embarrassed FOR her. She carries herself in a way that you may not notice initially that something is different about her. So a person watching her eat might just think she’s a slob, instead of a girl doing the best she can to navigate her food onto her fork, or who put too much food on her spoon and instead of gently tipping some back to the plate shoves the whole thing into her mouth. I don’t want people to think, “what’s her problem,” when they see me helping my eleven year old with the knife as we try to get the last pieces of mac & cheese onto her fork. I wish there was some way I could put a sign above us saying, “She’s got issues, she’s doing the best she can,” instead of people thinking she’s weird. Or maybe no one notices at all, and it’s all in my head – me amplifying my own issues with her disability.
But she wants to go to lunch, and so we go. The conversation is strained. She stares into space and I ask her what she’s thinking about and she says, “nothing.” I try to pull out information about her day, but I mostly get two or three word answers. Thank goodness our food comes quickly. Now at least I can focus on eating and helping her eat. She needs several reminders to chew with her mouth closed and not to put too much food on her fork, not to lean so far over the food that her hair gets in it, to bring the fork to her mouth and not her mouth to the edge of the plate etc… and that takes up a lot of our lunch conversation. But we had the silences too. And then I had a revelation.
The silences were awkward for ME, not for her.
She was perfectly fine eating her food. It was my expectations of the social rules about eating out that were bothering me – making small talk over food – socializing. It’s been ingrained in me for as long as I can remember. And I’ve hated it for as long as I can remember. Lord I hate small talk. I so hate it, that when I’m forced into a situation that requires it I often over-compensate, talking too much. But with my daughter I realized I could actually relax and just eat my food, as she was happy just eating hers.
And the silence? It was actually a beautiful gift. Because I spent some time just watching her – looking at this beautiful girl of mine. I looked at her eyes, her mouth, her chin, how wonderfully uncomplicated she is – I drank her in. She is growing up so fast. She has so many challenges and I fear them, but she has come so far and worked so hard, and I’m so proud. Even after eleven years I’m still learning how to be with her. Today I was thankful for the lesson that’s it’s ok to have a quiet lunch – that I don’t have to stress us both out trying to force conversation. And in that silence I felt more connected to her than I have in quite a while.