The Ikea in Festival Center (Dubai) has a lovely little play area for kids, and Alhamdulillah, Khalid is able to play inside by himself as long as there is someone on the other side of the glass watching in case of the unexpected bathroom emergency or melt-down. Alhamdulillah, neither happen very often.
It’s a neat little place, with a slide and a large ball room and some tables and chairs with paper and crayons. The only bit of poor planning in there is a water cooler at toddler level with bright, easy to pull levers and only the tiny, standard drip-tray underneath- sorely inadequate for the number of kids who come, play, pull, and cause the occasional puddle. I don’t know whether the other children are less interested in water or more compliant with the attendants, but the water cooler isn’t so big an issue that they’ve had to move it or anything. But then, there’s Khalid.
One of Khalid’s latest fascinations is with pouring. He’s been in to pouring for a few months now, and it began with us losing five or six full pumps of liquid hand-soap in one week. Khalid would open the lid and pour the soap down the drain, then he would fill the container with water and pour that down the drain too. We lost a few economy-sized bottles of baby shampoo that way. Sometimes he would find water bottles and pour those down the drain as well, and then transfer the water from one container to the other, just to watch it pour. Needless to say, we no longer own or use liquid hand-soap. Bar soap is safer because it lacks a certain… flow.
So Khalid likes liquid, he likes watching it pour, he likes filling and emptying things, and he likes the water cooler at Ikea. Apparently he likes filling (but not drinking or pouring) glasses of water and lining them on up the shelf nearby, and apparently, the lady on duty last Tuesday had gotten a little annoyed. When I came to pick Khalid up, I saw him filling himself a glass of water, and I told the attendant that she might want to move him away from the cooler, since I was on the other side of the gate and couldn’t come in. She turned around, and from where she stood, over ten feet away, called out in a sing-songy voice, “Baby! I told you, don’t touch the water cooler!”
“His name is Khalid. He’s not going to respond to baby.”
“Okay, Khalid! Come here!” she sang out again.
Khalid, who heard his name and probably my voice as well, turned and ran excitedly towards me, knowing it was time to come home. When he reached the gate, the lady had to remove his numbered vest (that’s how they keep track of the kids) and retrieve his shoes and backpack. In the middle of this, she decided to kneel down, point her finger in Khalid’s face, and scold him.
“If mommy tells me you have been a bad boy I will not let you back in here.”
I waited to see what Khalid would do. No reaction. He was too excited about coming out. But then she said it again, more loudly and in his face, “You have to be a good boy! Otherwise I will not let you come back!”
That got Khalid’s attention. Khalid looked at her, saw the finger in his face, and pinched her. Hard. She stood up, rubbed her stomach where he had pinched her, and handed me Khalid’s shoes and backpack. As I signed Khalid out, she asked, “Ma’am, is this your only child?”
I thought she was asking if Khalid was my only child in the play area, so I said yes.
“Oh,” she nodded. “No wonder he is so spoiled.”
I think if this had been last year, and I had been more raw and less experienced, then I would have been seething. If this had been two years ago, I would have been in tears. But this was 2010, and I’ve been an ‘autism mom’ for long enough so that I don’t see peoples’ ignorance as insensitivity, or their criticism of Khalid’s behavior as a scathing judgment of my parenting skills or the lack thereof. As it is, I was warily amused. And, I felt a sorry for her. Khalid does pinch really hard.
“He’s not spoiled actually, he’s autistic. You know autism?”
She looked blank. And then looked at Khalid.
“He didn’t understand what you were saying.”
And then she looked really, really embarrassed.
“But, but he looks so normal. He looks ok!”
“Most children with autism look completely normal.”
Khalid was holding my hand now, and as he bounced in place, his dog tags- engraved with his name, nationality, contact info, and AUTISM in capital letters- jingled a happy tune.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know…”
“It’s ok,” I said. And really, it was.
I think the next time I go down I’ll say hi and strike up a conversation. She could use some pointers on addressing children directly and in an authoritative tone of voice. All kids, even the autistic ones and especially the normal ones, can tell who means business just by the tone of voice used. And it’s not about intimidating the kids into good behavior, but if your ‘don’t do that’ voice can be mistaken for a brief rendition of ‘twinkle twinkle little star,’ then there’s a good chance that you’re not getting much compliance out of any of them.