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The Judgment Free Zone

August 22, 2010
An Emotional Spill

“Clean up on aisle 9.”

Yeah right, I wish it were that easy. If this were a tangible spill, they would simply call a team member to clean it up. But how do you clean up an emotional spill? No one wants to clean-up the sharp fragmented edges of a tantrum thrown by a four-year-old.

The stares of the others speak loudly. “She should really do a better job at teaching him manners at home so this awfully uncomfortable ‘scene’ is not seen in public. And just look at his helpless mother; why she can’t even quiet his piercing screams. If I were her, I’d… ”

If you were me, you would have a child diagnosed with Autism.

Amazing how many minutes in a given day I spend babysitting the assumptions of strangers in an effort to provide a more comfortable atmosphere. I say programmed phrases like, “Oh dear, someone needs a nap,” or “Mommy’s not going to buy you anything with that attitude,” or the ultimate crowd-pleaser, “I’m going to count ten, and you had better get your act together.” The truth is, I’ve been counting for over a year now, and it’s not an act.

Birth to 20-months was a great time for our son Grant, and we were proud that every baby milestone came with notable ease. He rolled over, sat up, crawled, and then walked much earlier than most. His accomplishments were our golden verbal trophies, and we proudly displayed them in conversations everywhere. Time was moving, and physically, so was he. His language, however, seemed to stand still. At nearly two-years-old, he returned to babbling, and then, only scattered sounds. There were no words.

The far-off stares in his eyes, the repetitive runs back and forth into corner walls, and the unbreakable fascination with disassembling objects, were becoming all too frequent. He slowly began to drift away inside himself. When the official diagnosis came at 34-months, we plunged into a rigorous regime of Speech and Language camps, Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) Therapy, Social Skill Camps, Extended School Year programs, and countless Early Interventionist meetings.

The progress made in just one year has been awe-mazing. On most days Grant is focused, making full eye contact with his quarter-sized beautiful brown eyes. He is able to write his name and spell it using keyboards or magnetic letters. He appropriately uses his toys and is aware of the presence of others. He speaks with vowel sounds and is learning to receive and show affection.

Most amazingly, he has become a teacher of sorts to his two-year old sister, who is verbal. He, making eye contact with her, will point to the letters of the alphabet expecting her to correctly say the letter he points to. Just this week, he pointed to the letter, “W”, which he pronounces, “ouble-oo.” His sister looked at the letter and said, “ouble-oo.” He returned a stern look and pointed to the same letter again. This exchange happened twice until finally she said, “Double-u.” He was pleased, and then pointed to the next letter, X.

Yes, indeed, that’s him. That’s my son. That’s my sun whose nickname is, “CHAMP.” That’s also the little boy who just had a meltdown on aisle 9.

In these “Aisle 9” moments it becomes painfully obvious that the average spectators haven’t paid the cost of admission to see my life. They judge my entire performance on this one episode. They hear the out-of-control screeching and see a child with no obvious physical disorder, and think, “Ahh, yes, behavioral issues.”

This is not intended to cast stones at those who have misjudged situations like mine. Instead, it’s an invitation to meet me on aisle 9 where brightly colored boxes of understanding, sensitivity and perspective are shelved and wait for those willing to look for them.


Sarena James, is a wife and stay-at-home mother of three who enjoys theater and writing. She and her family reside in Charleston, SC where they frequent historic tours and relax beachside. Originally from Aurora, CO, Sarena is a graduate of Paine College in Augusta, Ga.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. August 25, 2011 10:41 pm

    The truth of the matter is most of the parents I know with Kids with Autism are always teaching manners, unfortunately we do it around meltdowns.

    If only the NT parents around us would teach manners and compassion. I do not know how many days I stand at the park and make my almost 10 year old wait for his turn why 18 month olds to 10 year old cut him off and push him out of the way while their parents chat on the phone or look at their laptop. The playground is not a break for parents, its supposed to be a bonding experience, unfortunately most parents have missed the memo!!!

  2. Patricia permalink
    June 23, 2011 8:00 am

    I know about the Aisle 9 issue. My boy has been a screaming wild man at Walmart from the produce section, all the way up and down the aisles to the bath tissue and cleaning supplies. Like a rabid pit bull. Like a maniac possessed by a single issue — one day it was to return to McDonald’s at the entrance and give him what he wants to eat. Some screaming wild man days, if we’d been part of one of those flashy cable wrestling matches, he’d have “given me the chair. I draw deep, like Superman, to find nerves of steel and emotional strength that won’t even bend to Kryptonite. And there are days the well is running dry and I cling to whatever supply is left.

    I think we should wear billowing capes and leather gauntlets so people will know they are not looking at a parent with poor parenting skills — that in fact, they are seeing a superhero that makes Wolverine look like a wimp.

    • June 26, 2011 5:32 pm

      Patricia, thanks for sharing your experiences! Do you have any secrets. We’ve heard about parents who become prisoners in their own homes because it gets to be too much dealing with meltdowns in public. What works for you that you could share with our other readers?

      Thanks for commenting and don’t forget to like our Facebook page On Aisle 9.

      • August 25, 2011 10:50 pm

        I am thankful that my child with Autism was my 4th child and not my first. I had no choice in the matter of staying home and becoming a prisoner. I hope all you new parents keep trying, keep going out in public. Just do it small and build on it. Go to dinner at 3 pm when very few people are eating, work up to going at 4 pm with the old people, and then to 5 pm when it is busier. As a past server skip the 6 to 7 hours as it is not worth the wait nor is it worth adding to our kids issues.

        Keep trying, if you do not try you will always be a prisoner in your house and you will end up being one of those terrible stats of parents who kill themselves and their children.

        Also reach out, meet your children’s classmates parents. There is support in numbers. There is also more services when you connect with other parents and figure out what services are available. Networking is everything in the world of Autism.

  3. cathy livingston permalink
    September 7, 2010 7:01 pm

    Thank you so much for your story. I have a son with several disorders and is also a past cancer patient. I get stares like you would not believe.Lots of people don’t understand what we go through on a daily basis.My son attends project rex at musc. Thanks again for your story.

  4. Adrian Grimes permalink
    September 2, 2010 4:54 pm

    Thank you so much for inspiring, teaching and uplifting me with this article.

  5. Alexa Erbach permalink
    September 1, 2010 6:10 pm

    Thank you for sharing this. What a meaningful reminder to share each other’s stories and listen to one another. So many times we skim the surface, make assumptions, and leave without true understanding.

    A girl I used to dance with recently started a development program for kids with autism in the Charleston area. It’s called Aspire. (

    Thanks again for writing. Can’t wait to read more.

  6. Jerome Davis permalink
    August 29, 2010 4:52 pm

    Educators across the nation really need to read this article. It is definitely something I will share with my staff. I certainly enjoyed reading your works. The videos are a must for many to view. Please continue the good work.



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