An autism awareness moment can happen anywhere even while grocery shopping at Fairway Market.
The shopping cart was between me and Norrin. I kept my eyes locked on him, even as I began moving my items from the cart to the conveyor belt. The items I couldn’t easily reach I asked for Norrin’s help, prompting him the way I usually do.
“Norrin, take out the strawberries and put it here.”
He knew what I meant by here. The conveyor belt is Norrin’s favorite part of the grocery store. In his atypical fashion, he began lining up our produce and bent slightly to meet the fruits and vegetables at eye level. He likes to see the belt move along.
The cashier was a young black woman with glasses. “Welcome to Fairway,” she said. Her tone was very matter of fact and there was no eye contact.
“Can you help me pack the groceries?” Norrin asked her.
The cashier was still ringing up our items. She nodded and asked, “How are you?”
Norrin ignored her and went back to staring at the conveyor belt. I tugged on Norrin’s coat, “She asked you a question.”
“I’m good.” Norrin said.
The cashier greeted the customers behind us in that same matter of fact voice. “Welcome to Fairway. Place your groceries down and your basket on the floor.” She was friendly enough, but it sounded rehearsed, almost scripted. So much like Norrin’s speech.
These are the little everyday moments that I try to make teachable. Norrin has language, but we are constantly working on his conversation skills.
“Norrin, she asked how you were and now it’s your to say ‘how are you?'”
“I’m good.” Norrin said.
“No Norrin, YOU ask HER ‘how are you?'”
Norrin was busy watching the customer behind us place his items from cart to conveyor belt. Part of me wanted to redirect him, but it’s tough forcing Norrin to make small talk. Especially when I’m rushing to help pack groceries, put my bags back in the cart and pay my bill. Sometimes real life supersedes the teachable moment.
“It’s OK – I have autism too,” the cashier said.
Norrin doesn’t know he has autism. It’s not that I’ve tried to hide it. He just doesn’t have the cognitive ability to understand what autism is or that he has it.
I know autism is a spectrum, but I was still surprised by her admission.
“Reading is really difficult for me. I like math. I’m good at math.” She’s talking and packing and not making any eye contact. “He’ll be fine. He can do it.”
While I swiped my debit card, she shared that she’s a student at Mercy College and that she just took a statistics midterm.
We made small talk while she packed and I loaded the bags in my cart. We wished each other happy holidays and the best of luck.
Walking back to the parking lot, I thought about her and wondered what her childhood was like. I wondered about her parents. Did they have the same worries I did? Did they know in those early years of autism that their daughter would be able to attend college while working part-time?
Norrin will be 10 in January. I think about his future all the time. I don’t know if college will be an option for him. It’s not that I don’t believe in him. I know that he’s smart. College just isn’t for everyone. I’m just being realistic.
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But I do wonder if he’ll be able to have a job. I’d like him to. And it’s reassuring to know that there are businesses who hire individuals with special needs.
We don’t focus so much on being normal. Atypical is our normal. But it’s still hard sometimes. Especially right after reading a progress report. There are so many things that we need to work on. So many things that are unknown. When you have a kid with autism, the unknown feels scary.
The cashier at Fairway made me think about Norrin’s future and she gave me hope. She reminded me that I have no way of knowing what’s in store for Norrin. I thought about how far he’s come since his autism diagnosis. There was a time when I wondered if he would ever learn to speak.
My imagination – as grand as it is – isn’t big enough to imagine what Norrin will become or what his future will be like. I just have to believe in what we’re doing now.