How Should We Share Public Spaces With People Who Behave Strangely?

Health and medicine explained.
March 16 2013 5:30 AM

Where Should Special Needs Kids Be Special?

Tricky questions about how to share public spaces.

A child affected by Down Syndrome takes part in a celebration of the World Down Syndrome Day in Guatemala City, on March 21, 2012.,Mvd6252804
What are reasonable expectations of behavior in public places?

Photo by Johan Ordoñez/AFP/Getty Images

Earlier this year, I was out to dinner with a friend and our combined eight kids. My 14-year-old son, Jonah, who has autism, was very excited about the imminent arrival of his hamburger and french fries, so he was acting as he does when he’s happy: bouncing in his seat, clapping his hands, and vocalizing a mishmash of squawks and catchphrases from his favorite Sesame Street videos. He wasn’t exceedingly loud, but the oddness of his behavior had clearly caught the attention of an older gentleman at the one other table occupied at that early hour.

Shhhhhhh,” he hissed from across the room.

Everyone at the table instantly froze—except, of course, for Jonah. “I’m sorry,” I explained, rising from my seat and taking a few steps toward him so I wouldn’t have to holler. “My son is autistic … ”

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“Oh, sorry,” he said.

“He’s not trying to disturb you intentionally … ”

“I heard you the first time,” he snapped.

My face burned as I returned to my seat, his gratuitous nastiness instantly draining the joy from my evening. I spent the rest of the dinner constantly shushing Jonah, even though we had specifically decided to eat out at 6 on a Thursday night in a casual eatery so we wouldn’t have to hold any of the kids to impossible standards of behavior.

It turns out my friend and I weren’t the only ones who have been discussing the rights of disabled individuals in the community, the responsibilities of their families, and the expectations of the public, as we did that evening. Two recent high-profile incidents focused the nation’s attention on this very issue.

First, Whole Foods faced the ire of the autism community after a contracted security guard at a Milwaukee grocery allegedly told the sister of a 26-year-old autistic man who had taken some food from the hot bar that “he needed to get out of the store and not come back unless he was on a leash.” Although the guard resigned, Whole Foods apologized, and sensitivity training was arranged for the entire staff, a spokesperson gently pointed out this wasn’t the first time Michael Goldman had helped himself from the prepared trays. Even if his sister paid for the food, as she offered to do, it’s unclear what expenses the store might have had to absorb if Goldman had used his hands, contaminating the entire tray. As the parent of an autistic teen who is also a threat to snatch food, I wondered along with many others why his sister hadn’t been glued to his side—or even, as I would have been, physically guiding him by the arm or shoulder—in such a tempting environment.

The next week, Michael Garcia, a waiter at a Houston restaurant called Lorenzo’s, received mass acclaim after refusing to serve a family who changed tables to get away from a 5-year-old with Down syndrome. The customer allegedly complained to Garcia that “special needs children need to be special somewhere else.”