That Shiver of Recognition
Written by
Glen Finland
April 2013
Written by
Glen Finland
April 2013



First the note of impatience in the father’s voice as he cautions his son to slow the grocery cart down in the dogfood aisle. The maybe seven-year-old looks just like his dad in a tee-shirt and shorts, but he moves with an awkward, unfocused gait.

“Nolan!” the dad shouts. “Stop right there and look at me. Look at Dad. Nolan!” Too late—bang!  Staring down at his flip-flops, Nolan has bumped his empty cart into mine. No damage done, but I pick up on the faraway look in the child’s eyes and the sound of fatigue in his dad’s pleading, “Nolan! Look at Dad, Nolan!”

“No worries,” I say to the father, winking at Nolan and giving them both a big, goofy smile. Nolan doesn’t smile back at me, but I can see he’s paying attention now, and as I push on down the aisle I feel a shiver of recognition. I know that look on Nolan’s face and I get the helplessness in the father’s voice.

I remember other trips to the grocery store that went awry. I remember the condescending looks from others when I would repeat myself endlessly to get my own child to move away from wherever he had gotten himself stuck. I want to tell Nolan’s dad that it’s OK for his kid to tap the cart into mine because I could see his boy had been enjoying hearing his flip-flops slide across the cool, clean floor. I want to tell Nolan’s dad that he’s doing a good job today, taking his son on an errand, just the two of them, maybe giving Mom a rare break.

But I say nothing. Even though my autism radar has kicked in full force, it would have been presumptious of me to make a quick diagnosis of Nolan’s abilities. I don’t dare tell Nolan’s dad that “I’ve got a grown-up Nolan at home and believe me, you’re doing a good job, Dad.” Instead I bite my tongue and zip around the corner to the lightbulb display.

Still, I wanted badly to pat Dear Old Dad on the back, offer a little solidarity on the autism battlefront, and let him know his hard work will pay off down the road. But I do not cross that privacy line.

And this is how autism works to isolate us further as parents. With the spectrum being so broad, it often manifests itself as a hidden disability which creates its own sort of secret society for the families who are in it for life. The bright side is the hidden gift of an ever-growing organization like Autism Speaks, a place where the right to being a different sort of human is recognized, valued, and honored.

Meanwhile back in the lightbulb section, I find the familiar in an unexpected place once again. Here comes Nolan, bearing down on me with his grocery cart a second time, only this time he’s staring at me with a big smile on his face. His dad follows close behind him with his palms turned up. Then he recognizes me and laughs.

“Look out, Dad,” I let myself say, “the fun is just beginning.”


Glen Finland is the author of Next Stop:An Autistic Son Grows Up - a memoir about raising her autistic son to adulthood and learning to let go, Putnam/ 2012. Now available in paperback from Penguin.

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