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Earlier this year, I was out to dinner with a friend and our combined eight kids. My 14-year-old son, Jonah, who has autism, was very excited about the imminent arrival of his hamburger and french fries, so he was acting as he does when he’s happy: bouncing in his seat, clapping his hands, and vocalizing a mishmash of squawks and catchphrases from his favorite Sesame Street videos. He wasn’t exceedingly loud, but the oddness of his behavior had clearly caught the attention of an older gentleman at the one other table occupied at that early hour.
“Shhhhhhh,” he hissed from across the room.
Everyone at the table instantly froze—except, of course, for Jonah. “I’m sorry,” I explained, rising from my seat and taking a few steps toward him so I wouldn’t have to holler. “My son is autistic … ”
“Oh, sorry,” he said.
“He’s not trying to disturb you intentionally … ”
“I heard you the first time,” he snapped.
My face burned as I returned to my seat, his gratuitous nastiness instantly draining the joy from my evening. I spent the rest of the dinner constantly shushing Jonah, even though we had specifically decided to eat out at 6 on a Thursday night in a casual eatery so we wouldn’t have to hold any of the kids to impossible standards of behavior.
It turns out my friend and I weren’t the only ones who have been discussing the rights of disabled individuals in the community, the responsibilities of their families, and the expectations of the public, as we did that evening. Two recent high-profile incidents focused the nation’s attention on this very issue.
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