Mom and dad didn’t get to Missouri very often and we were so happy they could spend time getting to know Eli. Eli has autism and speaking on the phone isn’t something he likes to do. Mom and dad had only seen Eli previously when E was a baby so they couldn’t really interact with him. This visit was their first time with him after the diagnosis.
The week flew by us and we had some great moments. When we went out to dinner the last night we had no idea that it could end very badly.
We went to a moderately busy Outback Steakhouse. We huddled in the booth and made our orders. Eli was behaving himself although he was really hungry. We sat in the booth waiting for our drinks. And waiting. And waiting. It took over half an hour for our drinks to get to us. By this point, Eli was a little irritated. He began to make little squealing noises. They were shouts, they weren’t overly loud. Enough that someone in the booths immediately next to us could hear it.
After 45 minutes, an appetizer arrived…and it was cold. Eli didn’t want to eat it and I didn’t blame him because a bloomin’ onion feels kind of weird when it’s cold. So Eli became more angry because he was hungry and now there was food he couldn’t eat. He started telling us how hungry he was repeatedly. Repetition is something autistic children can do when they’re upset.
An hour and fifteen minutes later…still no food. Eli was squirming in his seat and again wasn’t being bad enough that I needed to take him outside (although it would have done no good to do so because it’s not like Eli was choosing to “act up.”) People in the booths around us were looking at E when he would make noises so my father went to each table, apologized, explained Eli had autism and that he was acting up because he was hungry and we didn’t have anything edible in over an hour. Most people were sympathetic. An older couple actually gave us their appetizer so Eli could start eating.
That’s when a moment that I won’t ever forget happened to us.
Dad sat back down at the booth. He and mom were talking with Eli while he ate and began to make some noises which I call “happy squeal.” Dale was digging into the food as well pretending he wasn’t trying to take the food away from his brother.
The waiter for the table behind us walked up. The booth had a man and woman and their two children. The girl was working on a phone, the boy had some kind of MP3 player he was listening to while the couple silently ate their meal.As I sat looking at my son, I heard this exchange:
“And how is your meal. Is everything OK?”
“Except for the retard in the next booth ruining things by making noise everything is fine,” the woman responded.
“I’m sorry about that. Could I bring you a dessert to make up for it?”
I still thank God that the Holy Spirit was in me at that moment. Otherwise, it wouldn’t have been pretty. I thanked God I was the only one at our table who apparently had heard the woman’s comments. My dad wouldn’t have been as forgiving as I surprised myself at being to this woman. (You don’t mess with his grandchildren.) And she used the word a few more times before the family finished their food and left the restaurant.
But it hurt. Badly. Mostly because this woman didn’t have a second thought about denigrating my son. He was less than human to her. He was just some “retard” whose noises somehow ruined a meal where her own children weren’t interacting with her anyway.
And the waiter? ”Could I bring you a dessert to make up for it?” I never spoke to that kid…he seemed in his late teens or early twenties…but I want to give him the benefit of the doubt that he just responded the way they did to every complaint from a customer. That he didn’t really hear what the woman had said to him.
Imagine someone calling your child a retard. Worthless. Less than human.
(To their credit, when Outback found out about it, they responded quickly and decisively. They brought us back for several meals on them. They identified the woman who said those words and said she wouldn’t be welcome again in their restaurant. It was a joy to see a business take something so seriously. And it wasn’t just that the service was bad that night…they were furious a patron acted in the manner this woman acted toward us. )
Today is the national day for raising awareness to end the use of the word “retard.” That word is as offensive to someone with special needs and their families as the six letter f-word, the n-word or the b-word. If you use it, please stop. If you hear someone else using it, ask them to stop.
The word’s not funny. It’s not a “joke.” It’s not even a word that doesn’t have a lot of synonyms for the “legitimate” definition for it making the need for using the word irrelevant.
Please help us spread the word to end the word.
(Edit to add: While Eli’s mom has been incredible with him, this is written by Eli’s dad.)