Join Isabel Romero as she shares her journey in health, fitness and mental wellness. Her goal is to serve as an inspiration to others by helping all her readers achieve their personal best.
Last weekend I took my two daughters to the American Girl store in Miami. This store is quite magical for all little girls, with every type of doll you can ever imagine under one roof. What I love the most about this doll is that it comes in every color, hair type and nationality. It embraces every child’s differences.
While we were walking around the store, I noticed another woman shopping with her friend and 2 kids. Since I am so keenly sensitized to “atypical” children, I saw some of the signs in one of the children that I am all too familiar with and had a pretty good idea that this little girl had Autism Spectrum Disorder. We were called to our table in their in-house restaurant, and after we got our food and started to eat, that same child I noticed a bit earlier started screaming, crying and hitting everyone in sight. Her mother held her tight and whispered in her ear. Although they were 3 tables away, in my mind I could hear her saying “shhhh…it’s okay, it’s going to be okay, just close your eyes and take a deep breath.”
As I witnessed this touching moment of true loving devotion in the midst of hardship, I came back to reality and realized that the table in front of me was staring at them. I listened to them and saw them rolling their eyes, one saying to the other “geez lady, take your spoiled brat out of here!,” and the other responding “yeah, she probably didn’t get the doll she wanted, boo hoo!” They both laughed. What was worse is that they said these things right in front of their 3 girls. My heart started to tear. I then looked at the table to the left of me. The father of this family sarcastically said to his wife “what great parenting,” then looked at his daughter and said, “if you ever throw a fit like that, I will take you home and ground you.” My heart continued to tear into pieces. I looked at the mom of this special-needs child again, and I noticed the pain in her eyes. I could hear what she was thinking because I have been there too—the thoughts of desperation with her inability to comfort her child. I could feel her anxiety escalating as she became acutely aware that everyone in the restaurant was staring at her and whispering. I could hear her thinking “will this ever get any easier dear God? Please help me!” I could hear it clear as day.
Just as all of this was racing through my head, my heart now completely shattered for this family, I heard a little voice and looked down at my 4-year-old daughter as she tapped my arm, trying to get my attention: “mommy, mommy.” I responded: “yes Valentina.” She continued: “mommy it’s okay, I think that little girl is just Autistic like my sister. She will be okay.” And just like that, she took another bite of her pasta. I looked at her and at my other daughter sitting next to her, Catalina, who has Autism, as they sat there completely un-phased by what seemed to be “bothering” so many others. They were not getting bent out of shape by the screaming and were not passing judgment. My eyes instantly welled up as I realized that my children have a greater understanding of humanity and are more accepting of everyone despite their apparent differences, than any of the adults in this restaurant, and sadly, most people in society today.
The feelings I was experiencing were mixed: super proud of the wonderful little human beings that call me mommy and intense anger and sadness by what I saw happening right in front of me. My mind went into overdrive…. I immediately wanted to talk to the two tables next to us and say “PLEASE STOP JUDGING. The little girl cannot help it. It is cold, loud and bright in here. She is overstimulated and does not know how to process it. This is not her just being a brat because she didn’t get the doll she wanted. This is her not having the gift that you and I have of being able to function in a neurotypical manner.” I SO badly wanted to educate them. My first thought was ¨what jerks!! These people have no clue! They are so ignorant!” But then, I actually started to feel sad for them, because in reality, most people who judge are just unaware. It’s not their fault either that they have never had to experience this. Although it is impossible to say for sure, I can only imagine that maybe if I myself had never been blessed with a special needs child, perhaps I too would be passing the same judgments due to my complete ignorance.
For the past almost 5 years since Catalina was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, the one question or comment I have heard a million times is “oh my god Isabel, this must be so hard. I am so sorry. You are such a supermom and hero.” The first year or two, when I would hear this, I would think to myself “yes, it’s freaking brutal. Why did this have to happen to my family?” The crazy thing is that I can now tell you with 100% honesty that having a special needs child was the biggest blessing from God I could have ever asked for. The amount of self-reflection and personal growth involved while helping her succeed in life has been immeasurable. It is truly priceless. I can say with certainty that compared to perhaps the majority of the population, including the person I used to be, I am so much more patient, kind, compassionate, understanding, non-judgmental, and accepting of everyone’s differences. And the even bigger gift has been to my children. The compassionate things they say to me on a regular basis when they encounter someone who is different always leaves me speechless. Since the moment Catalina was diagnosed when she turned 2, every single time our family had to “deal with” one of her many issues (head banging, biting her skin off, screaming bloody murder, unable to go to public places, unable to process loud noises or bright lights, etc) I had to explain to her 2 siblings what was going on… explaining that it was beyond her control…explaining that they needed to stay strong and loving and supportive of her. I would explain that there would be many obstacles during her life including rejection and judgment from others and that they would have to be her biggest advocates since she is their sister who loves them.
So for those who tell me all the time that they don’t know how I do it and that they see my invisible cape every day: I can assure you that I am not a “hero.” Catalina is the hero to not only me, but to my entire family and everyone who has had the open mind and heart of getting to know her.
For anyone reading this, I both implore and challenge you to have a kinder, more compassionate heart and mind. If you encounter situations like this, please think twice about passing judgment. Do not just assume the worst, but rather, try to feel grateful for the fact that you may not have to endure that kind of pain. And if you are a parent, remember that the things you say in front of your children (like the women in this restaurant) are quickly absorbed and the behaviors repeated. Let’s try to make our children more loving and accepting from a young age so that they grow up to be kinder and more compassionate human beings. This world seems to be going to shit, and it’s up to us to make it a better place.
Just my 2 cents.
Love, peace, health and happiness,
Isabel is a Dentist (D.M.D.) and also has advanced degrees in Exercise Physiology and Sports Medicine, Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience and Biomedical Engineering. She is passionate about helping others, by sharing her own personal stories, in the hopes that she can make an impactful difference in people's lives. Although all people in need are important to her, she has a particular interest in helping children with disabilites overcome their obstacles, so they too can enjoy happy and fulfilled lives.