Like many parents who have children on the autism spectrum, Shekira Farrell often braces herself before taking her son to a public place. Bright lights, sounds of people talking, and even music blaring from a nearby car can send a child with sensory issues into overload all too often. So when Shekira took her 6-year-old son Jaiden into a beauty supply store recently, she wasn’t surprised when he began to melt down. But she was surprised by the store clerk’s reaction.
As soon as they entered Neptune City Beauty Supply in Neptune, New Jersey, Jaiden began running up and down the aisles, running his hands across the products, and at times, laying on the floor.
“I was going after him, trying to calm him down and put the items back in their right place,” Shekira tells Babble. “I was expecting someone from the store to start following us and stare, but instead, the woman [store employee] just kept assuring me that it was okay and the she would put the items away for us. She was so kind and it caught me off guard.”
But that wasn’t all she did. According to Shekira, what she did next was nothing short of beautiful.
“When Jaiden went to the sunglasses and kept touching them, she approached him calmly, and asked him to put them on so she could see how cool he looked,” she continues. “He got so happy and quickly put them on. She kept complimenting him and then pulled out her phone to take pictures and make a video for him, as if he was in a fashion show. He immediately started posing and dancing, as she cheered him on.”
Shekira was so touched by the story, she shared it on Instagram last month, writing:
“This woman, that we never met, saw him having a small meltdown and instead of the usual stares/silent judgement/attitude, she was so kind. She offered to watch after him while my mom and I shopped … My son was so happy. I’ve never experienced anything like that in my 6 years of being an Autism parent. And I can’t explain how grateful I was. Jaiden cried when we had to leave, but he gave her a hug and told her he would miss his new friend. We all gave her a hug. And this Sunday, we’re going to visit and bring her some ice cream.”
Jaiden was just 2 years old when he was diagnosed with autism. And as Shekira admits, she often questions if going into a public place with her son is even worth it.
“I need to prep more than the average parent for every trip,” she shares. “It requires me first informing him of where we are going, so he can be mentally ready and not be taken too much by surprise. It requires trying to think ahead and plan for possible scenarios. If he gets too hot, too cold, if he gets hungry, if he gets tired … I have to think about how many people may be there, if it’ll be too crowded, how much noise, how distracting or overwhelming may the surroundings be? I have to take into account how his day is going, his mood … if he is having an ‘off’ day. And if he is, I have to question if it is even worth going. We talk about safety as well before we go anywhere. It is a process, but it is absolutely necessary.”
Kids who exhibit behaviors such as running, shouting, or throwing a fit in public are often perceived by others to be spoiled and undisciplined. I myself have a child with Sensory Processing Disorder, so I am well-acquainted with the stares, side-eye glances, whispers, and sometimes downright rude comments and questions that come from strangers. Onlookers don’t know the diagnosis behind my child’s need to suddenly throw himself on the floor or to randomly let out a “rawr” in an otherwise quiet room. From the outside, it’s often assumed my son is undisciplined, rowdy, and ill-behaved, as evidenced by the reactions and judgements we receive.
Shekira echoed these same sentiments, telling Babble, “One person even called my son ‘bad’ during one of his meltdowns, and the lack of understanding is so unfortunate, because in those moments, an autistic child is not bad. They are suffering.”
It’s even more challenging in my case, and in Shekira’s, because our children are both male and black. The truth is, there are so many negative stereotypes that persist about black males, even from a very young age. Just consider the time my then-2-year-old son was called a “cute little thug” by someone we knew, or when a stranger asked me if my son was born drug addicted. Pair being black and male with special needs, and parents struggle even more to keep their children healthy, happy, and most of all, safe.
Thankfully, there are moments of hope where children with special needs are affirmed and encouraged rather than gawked at and insulted. And Shekira is especially thankful for the store employee who chose the former.
“As an autism parent, moments like that in public are both exhausting and nerve-wrecking, but she made it special. When we had to leave, Jaiden cried and said he would ‘miss his new friend,’ so we went back in to give her another hug and take that picture. I promised him we would visit again.”
Shekira admits that being a parent to a child with autism is not easy, but it is her honor to be Jaiden’s mother: “Jaiden is one of the happiest and one of the most loving kids you’ll ever meet. So much life and energy. Loves to learn and loves to play. [. . .] he is so kind and loving [. . .]. he loves making new friends.” And that’s exactly what he did, when he met a woman who went from a stranger to a friend simply by appreciating Jaiden for exactly who he is.