“I have to say that the greatest single influence on my life, and on my writing, directly and indirectly, has been my two children. They were born before I was twenty, and from the beginning to the end of our habitation under the same roof—some nineteen years in all—there wasn’t any area of my life where their heavy and often baleful influence didn’t reach….[N]othing—and, brother, I mean nothing—that ever happened to me on this earth could come anywhere close, could possibly be as important to me, could make as much difference, as the fact that I had two children. And that I would always have them and always find myself in this position of unrelieved responsibility and permanent distraction.”
I have three children of my own, and though I was older than Carver was when my first was born, I know that responsibility well. My oldest, Stephen (12), is on the autistic spectrum. Like many autistic children, he has other issues—sensory issues that make him alarmingly uncomfortable in confined spaces, anxiety disorders that at times can prompt him to act inappropriately in public. Though he is funny and endearingly charming in his own unique way, he is not what you might call socially gifted; he asks awkward questions of strangers and cannot read body language well enough to understand when others would rather he keep to himself.
My wife and I are acutely aware of how others perceive Stephen—and because of this, we keep to ourselves mostly, at home, renting Redbox DVDs rather than going to movie theaters. We eat at home even when we’d love to go out for a pizza some nights. Earlier this week, we had another appointment with Stephen’s psychiatrist. We’ve been trying different medications, different anti-anxiety pills, but have yet to find the magic pharmaceutical that will alleviate his worst tendencies.
Through our local autism support community, we’ve met other parents with children like Stephen, and most are just as insular as we are. Actually, there are no other children *just* like Stephen: Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) can be incredibly broad. Some ASD children can appear neurotypical, while others may be unable to talk. Still, as parents, we all worried, perhaps too much, about how other people perceive and react towards our children. We stay home. As often as we can.
But there are times when we need to go out. We need, for instance, to buy him clothes to wear to school, so we brace ourselves for what could very well be a challenging trip to the shopping mall. Even a trip to local art museums, which he loves, can be disastrous. He flaps his hands when excited. He can pivot on his heels and point suddenly to a painting that he particularly enjoys. Sometimes, he squeals. Or, especially with Blue-period Picassos, he can plop himself on the floor and stare at a canvas for a half hour. Though you would think museum officials would want all their patrons to be as ecstatic he can be when confronted with works of art, museum guards are decidedly less welcoming. We’ve been told, for example, that museums are supposed to be quiet places (this, despite a distinct lack of signage), places where one can not so much as point from a distance across a gallery to a work of art. Most commonly though, Stephen’s admittedly bizarre reactions have prompted guards to hover around us, surveilling us at very close distances—so close, in fact, as to cause his anxiety disorders to kick in. Which lead to melt-downs and exactly the kind of behavior that is least tolerated of children in public places.
Sometimes, heaven forbid, we need to fly from across country to see relatives. We practice coping behaviors with Stephen for weeks beforehand, yet the results are not always ideal.
Recently, I learned that a no-kids-allowed movement is apparently afoot. “Brat bans” are in force at restaurants and movie theaters and trendy grocery stores. Kids, even the best behaved, apparently make some people uncomfortable. Kids squeal; they whine; they laugh too loudly. And now, they are being banned.
Stephen gets overwhelmed easily. He worries about things—things that strike me as trivial, like whether his hair is wavy enough, or whether his voice is too low. Patience is not my biggest virtue. Rarely do more than a few days go by without me feeling that I have failed Stephen in some fundamental way. Did I react too harshly when he asked for the umpteenth time in a row whether his voice sounds okay? He can be trying.
About the angriest I’ve been in recent years came when I found out that a couple in our ASD support community were getting divorced. The father apparently just decided that being the day-to-day father of an autistic was not within his abilities or desires. So he fled to Colorado after draining and/or hiding most of the couple’s joint assets. A messy divorce ensued—which we heard about mostly from the beleaguered wife.
Okay, I know that other people’s marriages should be none of my concern. Maybe there were other issues. But what got me was that the couple’s ASD daughter was really sweet. Our children played with her often. She was well-mannered, a charmer, an intelligent and high-functioning girl. While she may have presented her parents special challenges, those challenges we thought were likely small compared with Stephen’s.
I couldn’t believe that some guy would bail on her.
Especially since Stephen could be so challenging, so often.
Yet, the No-Kids-Allowed movement isn’t aimed at children like Stephen—it’s aimed at all children. We are a nation that apparently values comfort over most other factors—and apparently the current message is that presence of children makes a whole lot of people uncomfortable. That the allegedly uncomfortable people happen to be empty-nesters or DINKs with a lot of disposable income doesn’t help matters. The reason that the movement is gaining traction is that retailers and restaurateurs and business owners are looking for any way possible to make its most well-heeled clientele happy—even if this comfort is obtained by banning other potential customers from their premises.
This tactic harkens back to the ugly era of segregation. Southern business owners banned African-Americans from lunch counters and bus seats, because their presence apparently made a whole lot of Southern whites uncomfortable.
Last month, Malaysian Airlines banned babies from certain flights. Other airlines are considering similar restrictions. Mind you, Malaysia may very well be the poster-child of intolerance. Consider how welcoming they are to religious minorities. Or LGBT lifestyles.
It’s ironic that this no-kids-allowed movement occurs just as tolerance overall is on the rise. Last month, gay marriage finally became legal in our nation’s most populous city. The nation’s Commander-in-Chief is an African American, yet fifty years ago, African Americans weren’t allowed to dine at many of our most exclusive restaurants. Or country clubs. Social conservatives still bristle at the sight of two men (or two women) holding hands in public.
When one restricts children from certain venues, one is also restricting access to their parents.
I should also add that most children (even Stephen on most days) are incredibly well-behaved.
I should also add that nearly all of us, at times, can make others around us incredibly uncomfortable. Grown adults yell at times, and what they yell usually is a lot fouler than what comes out of the mouth of a typical twelve-year-old.
Just as we have no right to ask that the fans sitting around us in a crowded sports stadium remain silent so that we may better enjoy the spectacle taking place on the field, what right do we have to exact silence on those around us in other public situations? Can we use silence as or enforce other desired modes of behavior as a means to exclude whole classes of citizens?
AdWeek’s Jim Klara writes that businesses are going kid-free because of market pressure. Apparently, there is a class of consumers with a “huge swath of discretionary spending dollars” that just would rather not see children in public places.
So what? Must economic interests always out-rule questions of access?
I’m worried. Not just for me and my children, but because this no-kids-allowed movement will be a back-door entry back to an era of intolerance.