What You're Missing

I don't typically don't get to be off-duty when my autistic daughter is around other kids, and I sure as hell don't get to sit back and devour the latest beach read when I bring her to the pool.
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Here I am at the pool, dangling my feet over the edge, watching. I'm here because I'm keeping a close eye on my girl, who is playing in the water, but I can't help but see your kids too. Your charmingly brutish, barrel-chested 4-year-old son, running around the pool deck, squeezed into his life jacket like an adorable little sausage. Your giggling 6-year-old daughter, chasing princess sinkers with the new best friend she met three minutes ago. Your 2-year-old, bending over to watch a stream of pee as it makes its way down his leg and onto the concrete pool deck below.

And I look for you.

When I eventually spot you, you're but a few feet, yet miles away -- chatting with friends, catching up on gossip, swapping recipes, scrolling through emails, reading.

I know that our vigilance levels are, by design and necessity, very, very different. My daughter is autistic. She has epilepsy. That means a lot of things of course, but for the sake of this conversation, it means that she has trouble communicating with others and interacting socially and that she could, without warning, have a seizure, which clearly could be deadly in the water. So I don't typically don't get to be off-duty when she's around other kids, and I sure as hell don't get to sit back and devour the latest beach read when I bring her to the pool.

Which means that my experience is always going to be different from yours -- and I get that. And it's OK. It really is. As much as I'd be lying if I said that I don't relish the idea of relaxing poolside, I really like hanging out with my kid. She's all kinds of awesome and we have a great time together. And, besides, I hate to break it to you, but I heard that the ending of that book sucks anyway.

But truthfully, none of that is the point. I'm writing to tell you what I see over here. And why, even though you don't have to maintain the same level of vigilance that I do, if you keep opting to tune out and shut down, leaving the job of parenting to the teenaged life guards scanning the surface of the pool, you'll miss an awful lot.

You'll miss him running into trouble and not knowing what to do. You'll miss her panicking when the lifeguard asks her not to jump so close to the steps. You'll miss him, unintentionally or otherwise, treating other kids like crap without anyone there to rein him in.

You'll miss him ignoring the life guards as they try to tell him that he's being unsafe -- or worse, doing something that is making others unsafe. You'll miss her rolling her eyes at them as they walk away, and them rolling their eyes in return, but not at her -- at your absence, whispering under their breath, "Where the hell are this kid's parents?"

You'll miss him meeting up with my kid in the water, wondering what to make of her odd entreaties to play. You'll miss how much he could benefit from your guidance in that moment, from your example to treat all people he encounters with generosity and respect.

You'll miss him getting teased by that bigger kid on line behind him for the diving board. You'll miss her deciding that shit rolls downhill and cutting in front of the little girl in front of her who's been waiting patiently for her turn. You'll miss him splashing everyone in a four-foot radius because no one is there to remind him to be aware of his surroundings.

You'll miss him mustering the courage to go down the big slide -- a first that will be never be a first again.

You'll miss him navigating without a net while you read your book and laugh with your friends and check your email.

You'll miss your 2-year-old toddling straight into the deep end while you laugh as you say with a shrug that you exaggerate for your appreciative audience, "Oh for heaven's sake; I lost my kid again!"

Forgive me for not laughing with you. You see, for many parents of autistic and/or epileptic children, losing sight of them around water is a paralyzing fear. And your kid is 2. So I guess I just don't get the joke.

I apologize if this sounds judgemental. I swear it's not my intention. You see, I've just got a different view from where I'm sitting, and I thought that you'd want to know how much you're missing over there.

Opportunities to teach and guide. To celebrate and encourage. To draw boundaries and foster respect.

Trust me. Put down the book once in a while. Leave the conversation with the other moms for another time. Check your email when you get home. Join me here at the edge of the pool, where the kids are.

Not just near them, with them.

You might just be amazed by what you see.


Jess can be found on her blog, Diary of a Mom, where she writes about life with her husband, Luau, and their two daughters, 12-year-old Katie and 10-year-old Brooke, who is autistic. She also runs the Diary of a Mom Facebook page, a warm and welcoming community of autistic people, those who love them and some random folks who liked the page and seem to be sticking around just to see what's going to happen next.