I can huddle behind my old hurts, burrow in my self-pity, or I can engage. I can teach. I can learn.

I’ve become accustomed to stares. Strange looks because of the strange sounds my son makes. Jerky movements and high-pitched squeals draw looks of curiosity, sometimes censure, and worst of all, pity. Yes, autism tutored me well in the ways of self-consciousness, and then thought me to ignore it all.

Public places have been difficult minefields for my family to negotiate ever since Myles was diagnosed with autism at the age of two. He had quickly deteriorated from a bright, vibrant, ever-learning toddler to a vacant-stared silent child who seemed frozen in some alternative universe completely inaccessible to us. The strange behaviour were challenging but created some situations that make me laugh…in hindsight. Way hind.

Like the time at the park fountains when Myles ran naked through the water. Kids do the darnedest things, right? Did I mention he was nine-years-old at the time?

Or the time he came downstairs to greet the friends wed invited for dinner…without any clothes on. Did I mention he was ten-years-old? Ah, the naked years.

Some incidents, though, even in the rearview mirror, will never make me laugh. One time, I had gotten up the courage to take Myles out to Golden Corral without my husband. Restaurants mean a lot of people and a lot of noise — two things that often spell sensory overload for my son. First came the screeching. Then the banging on his chest, loch devolved into banging on the table. With my nerves stretched paper thin, I noticed a sweet old lady ambling my way. I prepared my “thanks, but no thanks” to the offer of assistance I was sure she was about to make.

“Can you seep him quiet?” She snapped. “I’m trying to eat! Is he on medication or anything? He should be!”

I held my tongue out of respect for my elders. I apologized if Myles had disturbed her meal, and with as much dignity as I could, hightailed it out of there. I didn’t bother to look around for compassion or concern or more of what the old lady had given me. I had to escape the weight of the eyes around us. It was humiliating and disheartening.

After that incident, and others like it, I built a wall around my heart, a shell to protect my most vulnerable, tender parts from other people’s opinions about my family. About my son. It hurt too much when they didn’t understand, so I told myself it didn’t matter. And really, in the larger scheme of things, it didn’t. I still had the great privilege of raising this very special child. I still saw things in him only a mother would discern. I still felt compelled every morning to create a better reality for him, to imagine the best future I possibly could for him.

It didn’t matter what anyone thought, but I had lost something. I no longer gave people the benefit of the doubt. I stopped giving them the chance to be compassionate, stopped looking for the opportunity to help them understand. I assumed the worst about them, and in many ways, that was as bad as what that old lady had done to me that day.

So when I found myself back at Golden Corral with my son, who started screeching and banging the table again, I looked up with wary eyes at the middle-aged woman approaching. Her face was perfectly serene as she assessed the situation at the table with my son, my husband, and me. I readied my comeback. This was so little old lady, and if she had a complaint about my son’s behaviour, I was prepared to pull the trigger and give her the piece of my mind I had held onto before.

“Hi, how are you doing?” She asked, her tone kind, her eyes steady.

“I’m fine.” I said curtly, furrowing my brow as a clear warning to her that she did not want to mess with me.

“I hope you don’t mind me asking,” she continued. “But does your son have autism?”

If I had a dollar for every time some perfect stranger had used that as their opening line to advise me on how to raise my kid, I’d be a rich woman and probably would be eating at Golden Corral.

I flicked a glance at my husband as he soothed my son, who was now less agitated, but still humming and rocking a little. I raised my brow at him, using my highly-developed nonverbal to say “Here goes another one.”

“Yeah, he has autism,” I replied to the lady, who was waiting patiently.

“Well, I raised a child with autism,” she began.

Great. Now she really felt like she could tell me how to raise my kid. The only thing worse than a clueless person telling you how to raise your special needs child, Is someone who does know the deal telling you you’re doing it all wrong.

“I know you don’t know me, but my name is Pam,” she said, reading to touch Myles’ shoulder. “Like I said, I raised a child with autism, my stepson, and if you ever need any help, please call me.”

I looked at the hand she extended, holding a sip of papers with her name and number scribbled on it.

“I can offer references,” she said into the silence. “My pastor. I also drive a bus for the public school system. There are several people who could vouch for me, if you ever want me to watch him for you. Give you guys a break.”

My husband offered her a friendly, grateful smile. I couldn’t speak for the lump, clogging my throat. The smile she directed at me barrelled through the walls I had erected. The pure compassion of her offer bulldozed my defences. I blinked stubbornly at the tears threatening to spill over.

“I-I-don’t-“ I stammered, swiping at the renegade tear that had escaped and streaked its way down my cheek.

“It’s hard,” she cut its, saving me from blubbering. “I know how hard it is sometimes, and if you ever need help, please call me.”

“Thank you,” I managed to whisper.

“Call me,” she reiterated, smiling at my husband and me, and saving a special , knowing grin for Myles before waking away.

I did call her, and she became as close as family. She often babysits for free. She had a lot to teach not only Myles, but to teach me. Lessons I couldn’t have unearthed in any book, or at any seminar or conference. My experience with her became a master class on the depth and breadth of kindness. Humanity at its best, unfettered by selfish motives, unhampered by agenda. Kindness of the simplest and purest variety.

Somewhere along the way, under the weight of curious stares in restaurants, impatient looks in grocery stores, and horrified silences in too many places to name, I had forgotten what kindness looked like. How it felt brushing up against my cynicism. How it softened my world-weary edges. Pam helped me remember that it was worth taking the time to teach people about autism, because people enlightened about the challenges and rewards of autism are kinder. They are part of a better future for my son. These are the people who will have the chance to accept, to understand and appreciate a generation of kids like Myles.

I can huddle behind my old hurts, burrow in my self-pity, or I can engage. I can teach. I can learn. She reminded me that day, and a dozen times in a dozen ways thereafter. And for that, I am forever grateful.

Author, Tina Dula

Tina Dula is a wife to the love of her life, mom to a special, beautiful son, and a friend to those living with autism through her foundation Myles-A-Part, serving Georgia families. Her writings have appeared in Chicken Soup for the Soul and USA Today, and she has been featured on the Montel Williams Show, NPR, Headline News and others. She writes contemporary romance and women’s fiction under the pseudonym Kennedy Ryan. 25% of her royalties go toward her own foundation and to her national charitable partner, Talk About Curing Autism (TACA). Learn about her books at Kennedy Writes.