The story below happened to me on February 22, 2011. This event has forever changed my life. This is why we desperately need Autism Awareness. Thank you for reading and helping me share my story.
A few days ago I went to Giant Eagle to pick up some groceries. A winter storm was on the way, and I needed to pick up a few things in case we got snowed in again. I pulled into the parking lot and found a spot right in front of the entrance. (My back is out again so I can’t walk very far.) As I was pulling into the spot I had to wait for some people to move out the way. Their car was in the next spot over, but they just stood there and shot me dirty looks, as if who was I to expect them to move. I just waited, it wasn’t a big deal, I wasn’t upset. They eventually started to get into their car, moved out of the way, and I pulled in.
The snow had already started to fall, about one inch per hour. As I sat there collecting what I needed for the store, I just happened to look over at the people still getting into their car -- and saw a large black man standing there, too. I didn’t see where he came from, but one minute he wasn’t there and the next minute he was. Then I realized what he was doing. He was wiping the snow and ice off their windshield with his bare hands. The woman who was driving looked at him like, “how dare you touch my car.” She was clearly disgusted.
Instead of asking him to stop or giving him a few dollars, she tried to run him down. She gunned the car forward so fast that her friend had the back passenger door slammed on him, and was left standing in the snow. The man who had been trying to clean the windshield was knocked back, and the woman shouted horrible things at him. I was in shock. I had never seen anything like that before and I never want to again.
A few seconds later the man with the bare hands got up, walked over to me, and knocked on my window. I hadn’t even begun to process what I had just seen, now I had no idea what I was going to say. Shamefully, I was thinking “please not now, I just want to get what I need and get home.” (Where I live, it’s not uncommon for people to approach you for money.) I thought I knew what was about to happen, so I took a deep breath and started to open my door. The bare-handed man opened it the rest of the way, being careful not to hit the car next to me.
He was under dressed for the weather and obviously cold. He asked me for change. I gave him everything I had, $2.37. He started talking to me but couldn’t look me in the eye. As he was telling me how cold and hungry he was, I saw he was unable to control his hands. It was like he was playing an invisible piano. He had a very hard time talking to me and I could see he was much more uncomfortable than I was. He kept staring off and would occasionally look in my direction but not at me, or my eyes.
He stood about one or two feet in front of me and asked me to drive him to a shelter because it’s “warm there and they have food.” He informed me that he was “homeless and very hungry.” He then told me that he “was not lying to me.” He said, “If I lie to you then you might not help me.” He asked me to buy him some food and gloves. I thought about what to say. I knew he would have hard time understanding. I don’t have any money. My family is struggling to survive each day. I would literally be taking away what little my family has and I just couldn’t. I was trying to figure out how to explain to him that I couldn’t help him. I was lost for words.
Then something happened that shook me to the core and completely broke my heart. As I was trying to form the words I needed to tell him “no,” he looked me in the eye. All of the sudden I was looking at Gavin, the oldest of our three special needs boys (all autistic). Gavin is 11 years old and is also diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. Looking at the bare-handed man was like looking through some special window at Gavin, 20 or 30 years from now. It was a kick in the gut. I was overcome with emotion. It was like I was run over by a freight train. I can’t put words together to really describe what that moment was like.
He again asked me to buy him food because he was hungry and gloves because his hands were cold. Something about him was so familiar and yet I’d never met him before. I looked at him and told him I would buy him some food. He smiled in my direction and took my hand (without looking at me) and led me into the store.
He didn’t fit in with the rest of the people in there. His clothes were old, beat up, and didn’t smell very good. He had clearly been through a great deal in his life, and it showed in his face. People gave us looks. He asked me to buy him a gift card so he could buy food later on when would be hungry again. We walked over to the rack and he picked out a Giant Eagle gift card. He asked for other ones but I just couldn’t. We went to the register to ring it up and I explained how to use it. I put $25 on the gift card and the cashier asked if I wanted any cash back. I had them give me $25 cash back. I gave it to the bare-handed man and asked him to please buy himself some gloves and a bus ride to the shelter. The last thing he asked was to have the receipt so “when the police stop me, I can prove I didn’t steal this.”
He told me again that he wasn’t lying. I told him I knew he wasn’t. He turned to walk away and he stopped and looked in my direction as if to say thank you, but didn’t. What he did said more: he showed me his eyes again for a brief moment before he turned around and left. I stood there completely heartbroken as I watched my son Gavin walking away into the cold. I was beside myself with grief. How could someone I didn’t know have such a profound effect on me?
I just couldn’t shake just how much the bare-handed man reminded me of Gavin. I tried to finish the shopping I had to do but I couldn’t remember anything I was supposed to get. I walked up and down the aisles on “autopilot” doing everything I could not to burst into tears. I got to the end of the store and realized I still had an empty cart. All I could think was “how does that happen?” Someday I won’t be here to take care of my kids. What if what happened to the bare-handed man happens to them? What if they are the ones wiping off a windshield with their bare hands and almost getting run over by someone who clearly doesn’t care?
I screwed up my grocery shopping. I couldn’t focus on anything. I got what I could remember and drove home. I just couldn’t process what had just happened. All I could think about was not allowing what happened to the bare-handed man happen to my kids in the future. I pray they are never in that same situation. I truly hope that if they are, someone will show them kindness and compassion. They are my babies and I get sick to my stomach thinking about what their future could hold.
I got home and unloaded the groceries and went in the kitchen with my wife Lizze. I didn't want to say anything to her about what had happened, but I had to because we already were struggling and now things were going to be even tighter, and she deserved to know why. I looked her in the eyes and told her. I sobbed and sobbed on the floor in my kitchen. I couldn’t control myself or keep my emotions in check. That has only ever happened to me when I watched Lizze give birth to our kids.
The past few days have been rough because I just can’t seem to get past this. My heart has been broken and all I can think about is that the bare-handed man could be one or more of my kids in the future.
This has been very difficult for me to write. I’m still very emotional. So many parents will never know this indescribable fear that parents of special needs kids live with each and every day. I wanted to share this story because we cannot allow what happened to the bare-handed man to happen to our kids.
Please help me spread autism awareness. I don’t care what it takes but the world needs to be better. People like the bare-handed man need compassion and understanding. My kids need your compassion and understanding. Please give them that much, I beg you.
A version of this essay was previously published on www.lostandtired.com.