When Nigel was very little, about two years old, he had a cute little fleece jacket with a “varsity” number on it. It also had a hood on it, and we noticed that he preferred to have the hood up whenever we left the house. When I learned that he had autism and that most of his meltdowns were sensory-related, I came to realize that the hood on his jacket helped to muffle many sounds that he was unable to filter. So as he got bigger, I bought him new fleece jackets with snug-fitting hoods. The one in the photo above is probably his third such jacket, and he was five years old.
He continued to wear his hooded jacket – always with the hood up – when he was in elementary school. The teachers allowed him to, although they encouraged him to remove it while he was in class. It didn’t really matter to me that he had the hood up inside; if it helped to muffle sounds that bothered him, then I felt he should be allowed to have it up. What I didn’t realize was that the elementary teachers were trying to prepare him for middle school.
At Nigel’s middle school, it is against school policy for any student to have their hood up or wear a hat on school grounds. And the noisy halls of that school is where a sound-muffler would be most needed. Whenever I go to pick him up from school, I sit in the foyer near the office to wait for him, and as soon as the bell rings and students begin pouring into the halls, the din is at such an intense level that I have no idea how Nigel manages it. I have suggested to him that he wear ear plugs or headphones in the halls, but he nixes that idea with his “I want to be like everybody else” refrain.
So he abides by the school rule and, every morning when I drop him off, as soon as he steps onto the school grounds, he sheds his hood and bravely walks into the building. I always like to look in my rear view mirror as I drive away, checking to see if anyone follows him to bother him. I used to see kids walk behind him and mimic him or flick him in the back of his neck to get a reaction out of him. He tells me that no one bothers him anymore, but I’m never sure because he has withheld information before because he doesn’t want me to worry. So I watch.
One day last week, I dropped him off and he got out of the car with his hood up, because he likes to wear it when we leave the house in the morning. As usual, he walked toward the entrance, and as soon as he was officially on school grounds, he slipped off his hood and continued on into the building. As I pulled away, I noticed three boys standing off to the side, watching him. They pointed at him and laughed. And then, as I slowly drove by them, one of them actually had the gall to look at my face while he was still laughing. He saw which car Nigel got out of, day after day. He knew damn well who he was looking at. And so, with adrenaline pumping through my veins and a lump stuck in my throat, I glared at him. I glared at that boy who dared to laugh at someone just because he wears a hood every morning, just because he does things a little differently.
And I drove to work with sobs catching in my throat because I realized that no matter what I do, no matter how many Circles of Friends I try to start, no matter how much I write about autism, no matter how much advocacy I do, there will always be people who will laugh at my son and his different ways. This is one of the things I grieve for – knowing that ignorant people won’t give my son the respect and dignity he deserves; they’ll laugh, or worse – harass him. And it burns me. I can be Zen-like about receiving the wrong school book, but not this. This is hurtful. And there is nothing I can do about it, nothing more than what I already do.
This is one of the hard things about being the parent of a special needs child. No one wants their child, typical or not, to be laughed at. But we parents of special needs children deal with it on a regular basis. We do all we can to stop it, but it still happens. And we know it will continue to. I guess we just need to have the strength to do all we can – and the grace to realize that that’s all we can do. I don’t know. I’m not there yet. It still makes me angry and sad. And I think it always will.