During a recent trip to visit family in another state, Ethan and I encountered a critical, impatient and rude waitress. Surprisingly, the restaurant is a sweet little family-owned joint that we frequent during our trips to this state. It is a family-oriented restaurant (on the nicer side – with cloth napkins) and has an amazing gluten-free menu. The wait staff in the past has been tremendous and highly accommodating (even when we’ve visited with four busy, talkative kids and twice as many adults); but this time was different. This time, Ethan was the only child in the group.
First, before diving into the dining experience, let me preface it by sharing that our flight out of Dallas had been delayed by an hour due to a fire in the control tower just before we were scheduled to pull away from the gate and depart. Without a control tower, like the rest of the planes leaving at that time, we were stuck. And not just stuck…but stuck on a full flight (every single seat filled), buckled into our seats on an airplane that was growing ever hotter (in the June Texas heat) with every passing minute. To minimize the heat, everyone was asked to pull the window shades and wait patiently…um, okay.
I don’t know how many of you have ever flown commercially with a child with sensory issues or the need for routine/structure/expectibility, but if you have…you understand that this “waiting patiently” is far easier said than done!
Let me just tell you though, in spite of a sinking feeling in my gut (quickly pushed aside for the benefit of my little, excited travelling companion), Ethan was a true champ through the time we sat on the plane at the gate - sweating. Only once during the entire steaming hour did he grow anxious and insist to look outside. During the long hour, we had several talks about how everything was okay and we simply needed to be patient. But one time with sheer panic on his face he inquired, “Mom, how do you KNOW everything is okay if you can’t see?” Not another word was necessary…I calmly said, “Pull it half-way up and look outside, Buddy. We’re safe.”
First potential autism travel catastrophe averted. [Insert long sigh of relief.] Shortly thereafter the plane took off and other than having a super bumpy ride, only gluten-containing snacks offered to us by the flight attendant (Thank God for the Hail Merry pecans in my purse) and after arriving about an hour late (at dinner time), we made it safe and sound to our destination. Note: since my parents live in a moderate-sized town (with a small airport which charges an arm and a leg for any incoming or outgoing flights) we drive about 3 hours to a bigger airport in the nearest large city to save money. This unfortunately means that after 3 hours on a plane we would have another 3 hours in a car before we could go to bed for the night. Ethan was well aware of all of this and I know was understandably a little anxious as a result. I was hoping that our favorite restaurant in town would pull through as they’d done in the past…filling our bellies with a safe and delicious gluten-free meal served by a kind and welcoming service staff.
At dinner though, our waitress was impatient and rude with everyone, but especially Ethan, from the get-go. If you don’t know Ethan, you might not know that he doesn’t have a shy bone in his body! The fact that he yearns to interact with others is something I not only accept but do cartwheels for and cheer about (with pom-poms) in my free time. Many children with Autism Spectrum Disorders have great difficulty interacting with other kids and adults. So, quite frankly I’m thrilled that he’s so socially interested, even if he is often inappropriate and may occasionally come off as rude to those who don’t know him (or know other children or adults with Asperger’s Syndrome). In my mind, because Ethan is interested in interactions with others, we have a pretty phenomenal foundation to build up from…and it kills me when others – especially grownups who should know better – try to cut him down.
It became crystal clear in no time that our waitress felt slighted when assigned our table, at least the four adults at the table understood that. Ethan didn’t. He didn’t know why she was being impatient, why she didn’t appreciate it when he would ask questions like a little grownup or would request water – with no ice – at room temperature. He wasn’t rude, at least not intentionally rude. He did interrupt a few times, but he was stopped and asked to wait for the appropriate time to ask his questions. We have worked diligently over the past 8 years to teach Ethan proper manners and he used them (albeit with a few reminders)…our waitress, however, did not. No one reminded her that she should be using her manners. She ignored Ethan. She looked the other way when he spoke. She very obviously found him to be an irritating nuisance.
As an example, when our meals arrived and it was time to grate the parmesan cheese onto the aromatic, mouth-wateringly gorgeous GF Italian dishes, our waitress purposefully doled out cheese (which Ethan is allowed on rare occasions) to every adult at the table. Not only was Ethan the first to answer “Yes, please!” when she asked, “Who would like fresh parmesan?” But she started with my grandmother, and worked her way around the table SKIPPING Ethan and going to the last adult, who pointed out that Ethan had requested a topping of cheese. Her response: “I serve children last.” She continued to make Ethan wait until every adult at the table had parmesan before she would serve him.
Weird, right? This is one example of a long line of things that made me (and my mother) very uncomfortable. By the end of the meal, I quietly whispered to my mom that I felt I needed to speak to the waitress (away from our table) to inform her that she had just encountered a child with Asperger's Syndrome, an otherwise "invisible disability" which frequently manifests itself through social awkwardness.
Ethan “looks normal.” Unless you spend a great deal of time with us, you might think he’s just a “regular little boy.” He speaks clearly and with confidence. He’s cheerful, happy, smart and eager to interact with others. He’s also exuberant, impulsive and determined. In many, many ways – he is an absolute dream come true. Perfect? No; no one is…but Ethan sure is a cool kid who works harder than most 8-year-olds I know, just to handle “little” things, that are easy or come naturally to the majority of his peers.
But to make all of that possible, and to ensure that his self-confidence endures into his teenage years and eventually adulthood, we have worked and continue to work – Really. Stinking. Hard. When my friends’ typical kids were enrolling in T-ball and afterschool art classes in Pre-K and Kindergarten, Ethan was going to Occupational Therapy (OT), Physical Therapy (PT), Speech Therapy (ST) and private Social Thinking Groups. When my friends’ kids were having fun birthday parties with pizza, cake and ice cream alongside neighbors and classmates, Ethan was not invited and was home eating a special diet rich in organic vegetables and fruits, gluten-free grains, healthy proteins, low-sugar and an individualized regimen of nutritional supplements designed by a specialist to address Ethan’s particular deficiencies.
Because of all that (and much, much more), Ethan can now play team sports, take piano lessons and go to birthday parties with his classmates (though he’s still not invited often and I always brings “safe” goodies).
Did our waitress ever once stop judging for a split second to consider that any of this might come into play in OUR lives?
No. Or at least it sure didn’t appear that she stopped for any amount of time to consider anything aside from feeling put-out…like I said, she was negative from the get-go and only became increasingly more negative as our dinner wore on.
However, before I could leave the table to speak with her, my Mom (who is an intuitive elementary school principal with a lengthy background and certification in Special Education – and admittedly has a super soft-spot in her heart for her only grandson) said, “No, let me. Please. I need to do this.”
While I didn’t hear the conversation, I know that my Mom let the waitress know that she was hurtful and rude to a child with a disability. I also know that Mom made sure the waitress understood that I work like a dog to ensure that Ethan learns necessary life skills. Mom also shared that every time we go to a restaurant, it is a social lesson and that Ethan is never allowed to be intentionally rude to others; that Ethan is made to make amends when he is knowingly or inadvertently rude. I also know that my mother did this all with grace and dignity. That’s just the kind of person she is; she was raised to be thoughtful, kind and non-judgmental – but also to stand up for the people she loves, respects and values.
Sadly, I also now know now that the waitress made at least three excuses for her behavior and worked very hard to avoid having to take responsibility for her actions. Thankfully, Mom calmly and diligently kept “at her” until she understood that her actions were inappropriate and unacceptable…our terribly judgmental waitress finally apologized; to my Mom. Not to Ethan. Not to me.
I still have a foul taste in my mouth, four days later. Mom is considering sending a letter to the restaurant owner so that he will be aware of the situation. Maybe she'll even send him a link to this post, so he can get a "feel" for how deeply this one visit to his restaurant impacted us.
I am left with a prayer in my heart: that this waitress actually learned an important lesson that night. I pray she will stop judging and mistreating the people (especially our precious, youngest members of society with still-developing and oh-so-fragile self-esteems) who come to dine in her restaurant. I also pray that the restaurant managers and owners will notice that at least one person on their staff is making a grave error in judgment…not to mention customer service. I pray that they will have the sense to encourage their employees to judge less and care more.
Everyone deserves respect, but especially children; even those with otherwise “invisible” disabilities.
Leigh Attaway Wilcox is a writer and editor for the projectLD family of companies. Leigh is Assistant Editor of the internationally acclaimed AutismSpot.com and her work can be found on many of the pLDNetworks sites. Leigh is the author of ALL BETTER: A Touch-and-Heal Book published by Piggy Toes Press in 2007. Leigh lives in North Texas with her husband and young son who loves reading, LEGOs, Mario Bros. and also happens to live with Asperger's Syndrome, an Autism Spectrum Disorder.