“Open and close, open and close, open and close, open and close.” Those were the words from one of my students who just loved watching the automatic doors at the neighborhood grocery store. Those doors mesmerized him, how they slowly opened and closed as people walked in and out of the store.
We were on our weekly outing to a local grocery store, down the road from our school. The students were in charge of picking out the things on their list and paying for them at the register. All of them were taking the independent learning skills class, and this was part of their assignment. How to shop for food by using a list, getting the best deals at the store and spending money appropriately.
As we were walking around, one of my students had somehow disappeared. Of course, I knew where he was. He was more interested in watching the doors than shopping for less exciting things like food. All he wanted to do was stand by those doors and watch them open and close. He could have stood there for hours if I let him.
As I started walking over to check on him, an employee of the store stopped me in my path. She wanted to “inform me” of the complaints she had received regarding my student.
I remember her saying, “He is in the way of other customers and will not stop saying open and close. It’s annoying. Can you please make him stop?” I looked at her, my blood pressure was skyrocketing, my face was red and I’m pretty sure I was about to burst out with a few curse words, but I didn’t. I took a long, deep breath and said “Really, he’s just standing there minding his own business and isn’t bothering anyone or causing any harm. I don’t know why people would complain about him. He’s having the best time watching those doors and is so incredibly happy. Why would this be an issue? I don’t understand.”
The employee looked at me and said, “Please just remove him from that area, so I don’t get any more complaints.” I was dumbfounded and asked to speak to the manager. She looked up at me and said, “I am the manager.”
I was shocked; I couldn’t believe this “professional lady” was an actual manager. Someone who was supposed to be a leader and educate others. I took a second to think about what I wanted to say. I knew that it would be inappropriate if I said what was on my mind, she would have kicked me out I’m sure.
So, I said, “My student has autism, and he has been looking forward to this trip to the store for an entire week. To him, I’m sure that seems like forever. The only thing he talked about ALL WEEK LONG was watching those doors open and close. If you or your customers have a problem with him, then we are going to take our business elsewhere. Oh and perhaps you and your customers need to learn respect and do research on autism. Have a great day.”
I walked away from this ignorant manager and over to my student. I thought to myself; he is having the time of his life, and I don’t want it to end. So what did I do?
I let him continue to watch those doors open and close for another 20 minutes, and I stood right next to him. We smiled and said “open and close” about 1,000 times.
I never took my students back to that store; it wasn’t worth our time. We ended up finding a new and better grocery store to shop at that treated us with respect.
The world is full of intolerance, this I know. But how people can go out of their way to complain about a child who’s content, happy and truly having the time of his life, is beyond me! To me, the craziest part of this experience, is that the manager specifically said “people”… not 1 person, but multiple people had complained about my student in a the span of a few minutes! Multiple people were bothered by a child, standing near a door, repeating the phrase “open, closed?”
I don’t expect everyone in the world to understand the nuances of autism. However, the world would be a much better place if people weren’t so quick to judge and condemn others whom they view as different!
That day taught me so many things about our society. We have a long road ahead of us. The acceptance and tolerance of people won’t happen overnight. But with enough people standing tall together, we can be the voice of change!
-Suzie Dalien, M.Ed.