You might think that I have spelled your name wrong, but I assure you, I have not. The ‘s’ is added to your name because there are so many of you. Too many really, more than I can count. There are more of you than I ever thought I would encounter in a lifetime, and I seemed to meet most of you last year, in 2021.
The first time I met a person like you, and I say person and not woman because I’m a firm believer that men can be Karens too, they just don’t have such a notable name to be called. Keith, maybe? Kyle? I digress.
Anyway, the first time I met a person like you, my son was three years old. We were walking home from the library because at the time I didn’t have a car. Lucky for us, though, we lived half a block away from the beautiful brick library that sits on the corner with the tree that turns as red as the setting sun each fall. My son, Graham, who was having trouble processing the noise squawking from the speakers that the people who sit at a desk all day long in city hall think is a good thing to play each Christmas, had thrown himself on the ground.
Frantically, I dropped all the books we had checked out on the sidewalk, rushing to him. I placed my hand between his precious head and the concrete. I knew that when his meltdown was over, my knuckles would be bruised and bloody, but had to protect him.
Crouched down, I looked up at our surroundings, my heart thumping in my chest. When your eyes locked with mine, as you walked with your shopping bag from one little Main Street shop to the next, I saw you whisper to your friend. The way you looked at me, judgmental eyes, as you shook your head, I knew what you were saying. I could almost hear your voice as you labeled my kid an unruly terror, out of control, throwing a tantrum on the sidewalk in the middle of holiday shopping time.
There was so much more happening that you didn’t know, but that didn’t matter because you assumed you did.
A year later, when Graham’s Autism Spectrum Disorder became widely known, I saw you again. With nothing but our well being in mind, I’m sure you came up to me to have an actual conversation. You apologized, not for your actions, but in a way that said “I’m sorry that this has happened to you”. You followed it up with “you never can be too careful with those vaccines”. It became clear that you weren’t sympathetic to my situation, you were passive aggressively placing blame. Your stellar conversation skills ended when you said my son and I were in your “thoughts” and you would “pray for us”.
The way that situation ended was my fault. I knew even then that it wasn’t vaccines that caused my son to be autistic any more than it was vaccines that made you ignorant. I should have said that, I should have screamed it from the top of my lungs that we didn’t need your thoughts and prayers, we needed you to not be jerk. We needed you to treat us like human beings that mattered, instead of looking down on us because of something you didn’t understand and we couldn’t change.
I know what you are thinking, that was five years ago. So much has changed. People don’t really act like that around people with autism anymore.
People don’t, but Karens do.
Like the Betty White looking lady running the kiddie version of the Space Shot at a theme park last summer. She was sweet, with a smile that spread wide while she came to let us through the gate. Graham had watched the ride shoot up into the air and then bounce down for fifteen minutes until it was our turn. Kindly, as we got on the ride, I explained to her that both my children have autism and I needed to sit between them.
“They both have it? That isn’t even possible,” she said before adding more. “How unfortunate.”
Tears leaked down my cheeks as the ride shot into the air. I tried to wave my hands and laugh alongside my children that were having a blast, but I could barely find the strength. Whether or not you meant it, what I heard you say was that having my children was “unfortunate”.
You could argue and say that it was merely their diagnosis that you were referring to, but that is exactly the problem. I wouldn’t change a single thing about my children or myself when it comes to being on the spectrum. We are so much more than just the label that you think we wear because we have been diagnosed with ASD.
To us, we know we are different,. To you, we are lesser, unworthy, and unfortunate.
Which was clear when I met another version of you in the grocery store. For some reason, I have had more interactions and unsolicited commentary and advice heaved onto me by Karens while shopping for food than at any other place. I feel your hot stares as I walk down the aisle. This is a place that is hard for our family. Because both of my children and myself have ASD, navigating other people, the lights, and the noise is difficult, and worrying about what you are thinking doesn’t help. It is added stress that I don’t need, but I’m sure that doesn’t cross your mind. Because trips to the store, even during a pandemic, isn’t a difficulty for you. It’s obvious that you think everyone’s experience and point of views should be the same as yours.
This must be what you’re thinking when you lean over to tell me my child should be put on a leash, explaining that will keep him close to the cart. Or when you tell me to quiet down my daughter, who is yelling at the top of her lungs but not saying any words. It is almost like you forget that, like you, I am just trying to shop for the food that will feed my family. You also don’t seem to understand that I didn’t ask you for your advice.
Karens, I hate to admit this, but you are everywhere.
You are glaring at us in restaurants as if we don’t also have the right to go out to eat. You are at the movie theater, actively shushing my stimming child during the previews, only to loudly complain about how noisy they were when the credits roll. More often than not, when we do something as a family, no matter what it is, we are made to feel as if our presence is not wanted. That by being there, we are ruining it for everyone else.
You are in the line at school pick up, pointing out how I parked too far onto the sidewalk, then chatting up your friend with a smile who did the same thing. You are there, handing out invitations to a birthday party to all the kids in Graham’s class, except for him. You roll your eyes as I walk my son into school each day, instead of leaving him on the playground with the other kids, mumbling about special treatment.
Oh, you thought I didn’t see that? I did, and I hear the things you whisper about us, too.
You forget we are humans, with beating hearts and buzzing minds, who have as much right to take up space in the world as you do. That I am just a mother trying to do the best I can for my children and playing the hell out of the hand god dealt me.
We have a right to learn and feel and love and live our lives to the fullest, and we will no longer apologize for it. No, I will not tell my son to be quiet while we eat at a restaurant, because he doesn’t have to be quiet. I will not tell my daughter not to clap her hands and twirl her fingers because you disapprove.
We don’t play by your outdated rules anymore.
Welcome to the new world, the ever-changing rules of inclusion. I would invite you to discard your stigmas at the door and come on in.
Unlike you, we don’t discriminate.