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The Day I Was Nearly Arrested for Having an Autistic Son

Moms have been arrested for going on job interviews and letting their kids play outside. It almost happened to me over a tantrum.
 
 
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When my son, who has autism, was 4, he had such a titanic tantrum on the street in Providence, Rhode Island, where we lived, that I couldn’t control him. He started screaming, running into the street, hitting and biting me — and himself — in a panicked frenzy, and all I could do was sit on the curb and try to keep him reasonably safe. His high-pitched shrieks soon attracted a crowd, people openly staring with disapproval and commenting about how I couldn’t control my own child.

No one spoke to me directly, save for an older man sitting on the terrace of a restaurant; he hollered to me that I needed to bring J over so he could spank him. A few people took their phones out (pre-smartphone era; this episode would otherwise have been immortalized on YouTube), and I thought, finally, someone wants to help. Maybe they’d call my spouse, who was at home a few blocks away, so he could give me a hand. I had broken glass in my knee and one of J’s tiny sandals had been dropkicked so far into the middle of the intersection that there was no way I could retrieve it myself and still hang on to him.

I was about to ask a bystander to retrieve it, when I noticed that one of the ladies who had her phone out, someone who’d made disparaging comments about my parenting a few seconds earlier, was giving me a very disapproving look and stood poised, with the flip-phone to her ear, her finger at the ready at the keypad.

And I realized: Oh, boy, she’s about to call the cops. Instead of me being a sweaty mess of a mother trying to calm my autistic child, now I’m an abuser/kidnapper/potential felon/who knows what.

In retrospect, however, one of truly taxing days of my life had actually been stopped from being much, much worse when my friend suddenly spotted me in the middle of the mob and ran to my aid. My friend is white and clearly looks like a professional, non-felon, etc., and the crowd mutteringly dispersed.

Fast-forward some years; our son is now 11. At the checkout of the Whole Foods, something sets him off and without warning, he screams and sinks his teeth into my hand, biting so hard the joint in my thumb swells to the size of a plum. He starts kicking and screaming; my husband and I carefully escort him out of the crowded store and to our car. He runs the last 10 feet, jumps in the back and slams the door. He has his own jump seat in the back of our station wagon, an enclosed space where he feels safe. We open the windows on a gorgeous 70-ish day and let him finish his tantrum in peace. The tantrum sputters out quickly, and we open the hatch to put our groceries in. I turn back to my cart and see a cop walking toward us, while an entire line of bystanders — Whole Foods employees and shoppers — stare at us from the entrance.

“This lady called us,” he says, gesturing to a middle-aged white woman standing a few yards back.

“I wouldn’t treat a dog the way you treat your child!” she screeches at us, her voice dripping with condensed hate and disdain.

My husband and I look at each other. Was she talking to us? What did we do?

Then I remembered her. She was eating a sandwich, sitting in a junky van as we passed by, my husband and I, one hand on each of our son’s arms so he wouldn’t scratch himself or us. I remember giving her an apologetic look – Sorry to disturb your lunch – as we guided our screaming son back to the car. I didn’t realize that, in her eyes, she saw us abusing our son. Or kidnapping him? I still don’t know what she saw.