Guest blogger: Julie Hornok
In the last few weeks, I had begun to potty train my daughter with autism, Lizzie, moved into a new home in a better school district and helped her acclimate to her new school. Forced to be super mom every minute of every day, I was physically and emotionally spent. But since the entire last year of my son, Andy’s life had been all about helping his sister, I was determined to make him feel special on his birthday. We were celebrating his fifth birthday at Chuck E Cheese’s when it happened….
As he played games with his friends, I closely followed Lizzie around, partly to keep her safe and partly to keep others safe from her walking off with their belongings or eating food off their plates. She had no understanding of ownership or personal space.
During this time, Lizzie was obsessed with cakes. We spent hours at various grocery stores while she admired the cakes in the case and flipped through the cake books on display. When she found one she loved, she was overcome with joy, jumping up and down, flapping her arms and making a high pitched screeching noise. I loved seeing her so happy, so I indulged what I thought to be a harmless obsession.
Chuck E Cheese’s touts that theirs is a place where “a kid can be a kid,” but they had never met a kid like mine. Her idea of “being a kid” wasn’t playing games; it was wandering around and fixating on the many decorated birthday cakes at the end of each party table.
Andrew’s moment to shine was finally here. I placed his birthday cake with lit candles in front of him as the entire group began to sing happy birthday. He smiled from ear to ear because finally he was the center of attention. I sang louder, “Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday dear………..oh no!!!!” My heart began to race faster as the room clicked into slow motion. In a split second Lizzie had made her way over to a table with a large three tiered birthday cake. I ran, but before I could stop her, she stuck her hand right through the side of the bottom tier!
The worst of it wasn’t the ruined cake, it was how the owner of the cake handled it. She sneered at Lizzie and began slapping her hand away from the cake over and over again. I recognized how inappropriate Lizzie’s behavior was, but the tone in which the lady was talking to her was more suited for a misbehaving dog than a little girl. Anger and sadness welled up inside of me. In less than a minute, this woman confirmed my greatest fear: that most people would only see Lizzie’s inappropriate behavior and treat her unkindly. I feared they would never look past her unique differences long enough to see that her unhindered joy and out-of-the-box thinking could bring a new perspective to the world.
From that moment, I began to see people differently. Every person I knew or met went through a new screening process. Instinctively, I watched very closely how each person treated Lizzie. I surveyed their mannerisms toward her and the tone in which they spoke to her. This dramatically changed my friendships and fully dictated who I allowed into my world. Those who had no respect for Lizzie in my opinion, lacked character, and there was no longer a place for them in our lives.
Before long, I began to rely on Lizzie to help me see what I considered to be people’s true hearts. Within five minutes around her, any facade quickly dissolved and their true character was revealed…or so I thought. But by thinking this way, I was refusing to give the very grace I was demanding to receive. I realized that by judging someone only by how they treated my daughter, I was negating educational background and the challenges they might have going on in their own lives.
As an autism mom, it is hard not to immediately click into “mama bear mode” full speed ahead, but there has to be a balance. I learned to still purposefully surround our family with people who took the time to understand Lizzie and encourage her abilities, but when someone did or said something hurtful, I found peace in letting it go. After all, I did not know their circumstances either.
Lizzie ruining the birthday cake taught me two very important lessons: to not judge people’s character solely by how they treat my daughter with autism…and to celebrate my son’s next birthday with a pinata instead of a cake!
Julie Hornok is an author, speaker, event planner and advocate for autism. Her writing has appeared in Parenting Special Needs Magazine, Autism Parenting Magazine, AutismSpot, Thrive Magazine, Literary Mama, Chicken Soup for the Soul series and many more. Her first book, United in Autism: Finding Strength Inside the Spectrum, will be released in October 2018.