Out in the Open

You might be making life harder for parents of autistic kids

Kristie Mcallister describes how the grocery store is one of the most challenging environments for her and her two grown sons on the autism spectrum.
The grocery story can be a difficult place for Kristie Mcallister’s sons. She’s had to abandon a few grocery carts.

Kristie Mcallister has two sons on the autism spectrum. They're 28- and 27-years-old.

"They're wonderful," she says. "They're really the heroes of my life."

But caring for them comes with challenges. 

She points out that autism, compared with other disorders and disabilities, is generally invisible. It doesn't come with inherent physical characteristics. 

That means that when one of her sons becomes uncomfortable and panics in public, strangers don't necessarily see someone with autism having a hard time. They just see a grown man acting strangely. 

"People will give you a really dirty look, which is hurtful," she says.

One frequent site of difficulty is the grocery store, which is "full of a lot of unpredictable noise" for one of her sons. "Much like if someone came up behind you and popped a balloon." 
Kristie Mcallister has two sons, 28 and 27 years old, on the autism spectrum. (Provided by Kristie Mcallister)

When he reacts badly, not everyone around her is understanding. She admits to having had to leave a few half-full grocery carts behind.

But sometimes, people are kinder than she expects. She describes a recent incident when she could tell that her son "was a bit on overload." 

"I was feeling like we were almost home free to get to the car," Kristie says. "And this young child came up beside him and just screamed. She was having a tantrum herself. So he yelled back at her. And she was just four. You know, that's scary for a four year old.

"But her mom was so kind," she says. "She touched my arm and looked me in the eyes and said, 'It's okay.' 

"I have to say, those random acts of kindness from people probably affect me more than when people get upset."

Her son, too, is able to find his way through those difficult moments. She describes another incident in which a stranger was condescending to him, not realizing he was autistic. She asked him about it in the car afterward.

"He said, 'That's okay. I know they just don't know me yet.'"