When Ugliness Comes to the Surface

Here’s my column from today’s Chronicle Herald, a response to this story about a nasty letter sent to the family of an autistic 13-year-old boy.


You shouldn’t let it bother you, right?

You should dismiss the letter that one anonymous neighbour placed in Brenda Millson’s mailbox in Newcastle, Ont., attacking Millson’s 13-year-old autistic grandson Maxwell, starting with how “selfish” it was that she dared to let him out in public and ending with “Do the right thing and move or euthanize him!!! Either way, we are ALL better off!!!!”

You know those are only the words of one tiny person, grammatically challenged and poor in spirit, whose own problems must be so weighty that she warrants sorrow, not anger.

You know the fury of her hatred has been quelled a hundred times over by the people who have rallied around Maxwell and his family. Sometimes an act of ugliness stirs the good people into action, and they’re always stronger than the ugliness.

You should shrug it off. Yet still it bugs you.

It troubles you because you know what it’s like to wonder what people are thinking when your kid squeals or rocks or moans.

You’ve been in situations where the sounds echo off the walls, filling vast spaces, turning heads.

You have debated whether to give the full explanation, the list of diagnoses received in various offices, or whether to go into lockdown mode. (So my semi-verbal kid is making weird noises. It won’t hurt you. Get over it.)

You know most people are decent. They sympathize. Maybe they reflect on their own kids’ behaviour, whether it was last week or 20 years ago, and they get it. Maybe the scale is different, but they understand.

You have spaces where it doesn’t matter. It’s no big deal if your kid freaks out in church, because you’re surrounded by friends and family who know the deal. You just go for a little walk and it’s fine.

For other outings you add an extra layer of deliberation: how badly could this go sideways, and what’s the contingency plan if that happens?

You never want to make a scene—who enjoys that kind of attention?—but you accept that it happens. It happens to everyone. Parenting is basically an extended seminar in humility.

The other day took your “normal” three-year-old to a medical appointment and had to spend a long time coaxing him to pee in a cup. It went badly. There were tears, and you barely averted a strip-and-streak incident. But you get through these things, laugh and move on.

And your skin is thicker now anyway. You’ve learned how to push back when you need to, go with your gut, even disagree with the experts if you think they’re off-base about your kid.

You know the joke that “parent advocate” is interchangeable with “pain in the butt.” You’re willing to be both, for your kid’s sake, when the situation warrants.

So you shouldn’t let it bother you. And often you don’t. Yet there are moments, usually in the messiest of the public meltdowns, when you can’t help but wonder what that one outlier might be thinking. How icy their judgments of you and your child right now.

And then you see it spelled out in print like that, all the most awful things you’ve ever dared to imagine. All the narrow-minded fear, the utter lack of empathy, the bitter venom of the overly entitled. You’re reminded that they’re out there, those people.

They are not most people. You know that. Most people are kinder and more compassionate than that. You should focus on the goodness. Ignore the hate. Don’t let it bother you.

You try, anyway.


3 responses to “When Ugliness Comes to the Surface

  1. i agree. i was shocked by the letter as anybody. and i see enough reports on open judgement and criticism to sometimes wonder what people think of my son in mid-tantrum or just on a bad day when he is, basically, talking to me like a miniature abusive husband. what do they think of me, obviously failure of a parent who has brought forth the cause of their annoyance, this source of noise. but it’s a feeling that passes quickly. i do care a little, but then i don’t.
    i was glad reading about the positive reactions of the other neighbours of the family more than i was about the uproar about the nasty pink letter online. i mean really, there wouldn’t be a single parent of a child with special needs in the world who has NOT been stared at, judged or whispered about, rather than getting help or hearing some supportive words, or see a nod of understanding. it’s a bit absurd, but at least now the family sees who in the neighbourhood supports them and can build on that. and the woman who wrote the letter can take her pink paper and stuff it in her ears.

  2. I heard a story on the radio the other day about a family in the US who were eating in a restaurant with their children, on of the children having special needs. The child was being somewhat disruptive, as all children can be sometimes. They reflected that some people in the past had made negative comments when they were dining out. This day however, the waitress came over to their table at the end of the meal and had tears in her eyes. Another customer in the restaurant had paid the family’s bill in full and left a note that God only gave special children to special families…or something like that.. My own mother has remarked on occasion that she was glad that I had the child with speical needs, my siblings would not cope as well as I. I disagree with that, we all deal with what we have in front of us as best we can. We all make mistakes .

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