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I Need A Lesson In Typical Parent Small Talk…

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(originally written & published on December 5, 2012) 

I was at a business lunch yesterday with a coworker and a couple of outside clients.  These are two very nice gentlemen who don’t really know me that well.  They know virtually nothing about my private life.  I haven’t seen them in a few years.  And at these types of lunches we rarely talk about work….even though they are trying to solicit business from us.  The conversation is about sports, news, the TV industry at large (I work in TV) , etc, etc.  

But invariably at some point the conversation comes around to more personal stuff.  

“If I remember you have a son, right?  Any other kids since last time?….  How old’s your son?….  Oh, he must be getting excited for the holidays…..  Has he made out his list yet?….  What does he want?…Does he still believe in Santa”
All pleasant small talk kinda stuff.
But I freeze up.  
As y’all know, my son has severe non-verbal autism.  He doesn’t get the holidays.  He can’t make out a list.  He can’t tell us what he wants.  And I don’t feel like telling them what my son really wants is to play with & eat beads all day and laugh at himself in the mirror.  “What does my 9 year old son want for Christmas?  More beads & a portable, unbreakable mirror.”

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I’m not sure if it’s obvious to the person asking, but in my mind, I freeze up.  I don’t know how to fake it.  
I don’t know how to have “typical parent” small talk.  I don’t know how to muddle my way through it.
What I end up saying sounds like I’m in the witness protection program…
“He’s 9 years old…Nope, no other kids, just the one…. Yeah, he’s getting excited for Christmas…  Well, he hasn’t really made out a list yet…or told us what he wants…but he’s got some time…Santa?  I don’t know… How about those NY Jets?  What a disaster, right?”
I’ll just try & change the topic.  
Now, I’m not trying to hide that my son has autism.  I’m not ashamed about that at all.  But even though I have this page & blog, I don’t like to or want to live & breathe autism 24/7.  That’s not all that I’m about and I try not to let “The Big A” consume my life.  

So, in this situation, I just want to enjoy my lunch and not get sucked into talking about autism for a big chunk of the meal.  Without a doubt they will have some connection to autism and want to talk about that and ask questions…  And that would be totally fine.  i would be totally fine with that in certain situations… But these are not people that I want to drag down into the autism trenches with me on a Tuesday afternoon over Mexican food.  The fact that my son has severe autism is on a need to know basis… and I feel that they didn’t need to know.  
But I got to get better about faking it.  
Anybody have any advice?  I need a lesson in how to have typical parent small talk.  
Is there a “Learning Annex” course on that?


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Written by

Frank Campagna

I’m a 48 year old neurotypical dad with a 14 year old son with severe, non-verbal autism & epilepsy. I created this blog to rant about autism & epilepsy while celebrating my son who I affectionately call “the king” :-).

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44 People Replies to “I Need A Lesson In Typical Parent Small Talk…”

  1. I also suffer from typical conversation skills. After my son was born, I was dx with Stage IV follicular NHL. So typically talking with people the conversation turns to how my son is ( 7 year old-autism) or how I'm doing. I live through this everyday, I don't want to spend all my time retelling my life. Haven't they done anything exciting – tell me about that.

  2. Jayne

    I think you hit the nail on the head on your other post about parties, where you said the Moms are in the kitchen gossiping and the Dads are in the other room bullshiting. Men generally don't do small talk, they like superficial speak usually involving work, cars, sport, vacations etc. My other half hates get togethers because he's not a bullshitter so finds
    showing off impossible so sadly declines alot of social events. I think the best thing for you to do is be your funny crazy down to earth self just like you are in your blog.

  3. God I need to do better, because I will throw the A bomb out and then try to recover by reassuring people that we are fine with it. Then someone throws out the "its a blessing" and I say "No, its not. I love her, but its not a blessing" …then it gets awkward. Your way is better, I need to learn that not sharing everything is not lying. It just not over sharing 🙂

  4. Anonymous

    The few times I may get out with the girls I so hate when the talk turn to the children. To have to listen to all the stories about their going on's I just want to hide,not that I don't love him I just don't have much to add. He's still in diapers,he still attack people and act like a 2 year old and when I try I tear up and then they give me the pity look but yet happy it's not them.And yes I wish it wasn't me sad to say but true.

  5. Awesome post as ever AD :o)

  6. Anonymous

    Hi I'm curious how long was it before your son was diagnosed and did he always gave sezuire history also does he have gastro problems? Have you tried doing the gluten free casein free diet ??

  7. Anonymous

    After you have stopped increasing his doses, give it a couple months for his body to get use to the Depakote. My son is on similar meds and usually a few months after I stop increasing it his behavior/aggression finally calms back down. Just my 2 cents…but seizure free is awesome!

  8. This was a difficult thing for me for a long time. I like you have a severely disabled daughter who is 9 and we have no friends even in the special needs world that are even close to her level of disability. However, similar to how you feel I do not feel like it needs to be disclosed to people outside my personal life if they are just professional associates. What I have learned over the years is that when someone asks a age typical question about her I immediately respond with the truth and say well she has pretty severe special needs therefore she is not into (insert topic). I use to tell other special needs parents it is the cutting them off at the knees comment and then changing the subject. It is a little hard at first but once you get the hang of it… game on you feel great and as long as you are kind and confident when you say it others don't seem to be uncomfortable either. Just let them know this is the situation and it is really not open for a bunch of discussion so lets talk shop…. something parents like us like to do when we are not living and breathing special needs…. Also I wanted to let you know the first time I read you blog I cried because my daughter is so similar to your son (severe seizures and all) that I finally felt like someone understood and I appreciate you so much!

  9. I run into this kind of thing a lot myself. I have 2 boys at home and my little guy is a flamboyant, social, flirt who catches the eye of everyone. Big brother is my handsome silent one. We are blessed that he is semi-verbal and he does tell us what he wants. The part that gets me is that when we talk about the boys or people see them they think my little guy is the older one because he speaks and my big guy is the baby. I am one that simply glosses over it when people ask what he wants or why he does not respond when he speaks to them. I will prompt him or just say "He does not speak very much"

  10. Been there, done that. Wish I had an answer for how to deal with it. It may be a little vindictive but I imagine turning the tables on the NT parents. What? You didn't realize when your son began crossing the midline? How sad. A little shameless self-promotion here, I talk about this in my post, I Feel Sorry for Muggles.

  11. Anonymous

    I think if you bring up your son's autism, that it's a great way to spread awareness….you don't have to go into details…just the basics…."I haven't picked up gifts yet…he's autistic, non verbal, and we aren't really sure what he will play with, so we just get things we hope he might get to like"….

  12. One thing you could share with them are the ways in which autistic kids are just like theirs. Call out the things he enjoys that all kids do: soft blankets, trampolines, music, swings. I'm constantly astonished and inspired by products I find on adaptive tech websites that would be so useful for NT kids. For example, there's an LCD "Boogie Board" that functions like a whiteboard but with light–for all the lefties out there who get tired of erasing their work as they scoot their hand across L to R, this seems like a perfect solution!

  13. Anonymous

    Well this story will put a smile on all your face 🙂

    I had a similar experience just yesterday, I had to meet with my manager and a senior manager of my company from out of state and believe it or not the senior manager who I have met only a few times and really I didn't know much about him had asked me about my children and I said I have two children and he ACTUALLY ASKED ME "are they typical or non-typical?" Well that threw me off and I responded by saying "I have one of each" and he said "me too!" Well the next hour we compared our stories about our autistic children and their obsessions and the best part was my manager (who has 3 typical children) was the one that had nothing to say. HAHAHA!!!

    I tell ya it was poetic justice in a way….watching my manager look at us like what on earth are they talking about….. I had often thought that my senior manager seemed socially awkward (obviously since he asked if I had typical or nontypical children 🙂 But I left that meeting chuckling to myself all the way home… I may ask that question to others now when I meet them, cuts to the chase for sure!!!

    Hope eveyone enjoys their non-typical Holidays 🙂

  14. Anonymous

    I had a similar situation earlier this week at the doctor's office. My son was in for a follow up appointment from an ear infection he had two weeks ago. The nurse was super friendly and kept asking "how old are you?, everything will be ok, so how old are you? huh, can you tell me your age".. she was sorta insistent on him replying.. anyway I simply said "he doesn't talk".. I froze up and while my eyes filled up with tears I knew it wasn't her fault.. but still very fresh to all of this,. my son was diagnosed July of this year. Needless to say our kitchen calendar is still on the month of July.

  15. Anonymous

    Small talk can be down right scary. My world is split right down the middle with my two kids. One is very active in school as an honor student, president, vise president or chair in many clubs, cheerleader, debate/forensics champion, choir, drama, and the list goes on forever. My other child is a wonderful young man who has severe non-verbal autism. I dread being cornered by the other "cheer moms". They don't have a clue what challenges our family faces. They are so superficial and get worked up about such petty things. I really just can't relate. So, I'm known for being quite and sweet. Suites me just fine. They probably wouldn't want to ever talk to me again if I shared my true thought during any of those chatty chats.

    1. My kids are like yours. My NT daughter is very active and involved in many different things at school and is also a cheer leader. We have been pretty lucky though. We live in a small town that is primarily military and my son, sever ASD, deaf, non-verbal, is actually quite popular among his typical peers so all the parents in the area already know him and know our situation and they are usually very supportive. It is very hard to work it into a conversation without it sounding like "poor me" or just not wanting people to say things like "Oh, I'm sorry".

  16. Anonymous

    I just make out that my son, Dan is a normal little boy and then feel guilty for ages afterwards. I feel ashamed just writing this. I'm gonna have to develop a strategy – "My son, oh he's a superhero. No, really he is". Might work.

  17. Anonymous

    Several years ago, while my son was having his own "summer of rage" he had scratched my arms up quite a bit. While shopping a lady asked if I had been pruning roses recently…… I replied "it was something like that" There was really nothing else to say.

  18. Anonymous

    This blog makes me feel happy. I judge myself less and have really begun to appreciate that my son is so happy just the way he is. When i was a teenager i worked with severe non verbal autistic teens and other kids with disabilities. From those experiences, i discovered that NT kids were so filled with self and disabled kids could be so joyful and spiritual. Now as a parent of a boy with autism, my fear is slowly (!) starting to be replaced with joy and love for his pure soul, and the opportunity he gives us all to stop and smell the roses. At least in this moment, i feel this way. But thanks to you all for being real, supportive, and absent of self righteousness.

  19. Anonymous

    I usually mention verbally challenged, something about neuro responders and leaky gut and I'm home free. They're ready to move on.

  20. Just know there are a bunch of us out here who get this. You muddle through and smile like you did. The only other choice is dropping the a-bomb. My friends with cancer talk about dropping the c-bomb. We are not alone.

  21. Anonymous

    When making small talk, children are going to be included – are you married, how long, any kids, how old…just how it works. I feel sorry for people that think people with autism aren't healthy – and that includes people who are the parents of children with autism. I think whether or not you choose to talk with people about it is a personal choice, but I also think with "1 in 88" – it's a pretty important topic. Yeah, you'll have those who want to be all smug and pat themselves on the back because they don't have damaged kids…but you'll have that anyway. Here's how I see it – my kid is 30 years old, he is autistic. My sister's kid is 22 years old and has already spent 2 years in prison. Which kid is damaged? Not mine, baby. My kid is 30 years old, he is autistic. My other sister's kid is too lazy to get off the damned couch and get a job. Whose kid is damaged? My kid is 30 years old, is autistic and goes to work 3 days a week at the local workshop – he has cousins who are happy to sit around on the dole, not a F*(&&*^&*G thing wrong with them, except they are lazy. I'd MUCH rather make small talk about my kid.

  22. LOL… I am already so awkward and have little to no social skills… for me moments like this is just a series of phrases that i perfected… Like I live in the autism world and I just get to visit yours or it is what it is ( I have tons of these phrases from years of these social moments)… LOL… they always laugh, but never really believing that I am totally serious… it's awkward… I hate that feeling… I am not ashamed of my kids, I love my kids and their autism … as it is a part of them… but as soon as you say they have autism, the q&a start, the uneasy looks, the horror that I feel when I realize that I am going to get those overly personal, none of your damn business questions, because you know they just want to know all the serious stuff (makes me feel like I am their entertainment)… why??? I don't ask them about their kids, aside from how are they… I also only talk about my kids with those who matter to me or them… I don't have enough time to explain my world and autism to people I barely know… what happened to discussing the weather???

  23. Last night I talked with an old college classmate via Facebook,and he asked me the typical questions: "where do you live?, did you get married? how many kids do you have, etc." I didn't mention about that one of my children has autism, I think I didn't have to do it. But he told me this: "I almost got old and finally I got a daughter,she is healthy, just how we want our children, healthy, don't you?" Even behind of the screen of my computer, I nodded, I didn't know what to say…I just changed the topic…just like you AD. Luckily we have all this community with children with special needs and when we are down, they are there to cheer us up, or just to understand what we are talking about when we said : "he got a meltdown because no more popcorns at home, he painted my wall with…(you know what), etc. etc.

  24. I completely understand. My son doesn't understand daily life and santa or even a list. He doesn't even know when his birthday is or how old is he. So when i am around others that want to know and they are just acquaintances i just nod and smile. Otherwise it turns into silence and how sorry they are. When in reality i think my son has the brightest personalty ever! Just because he isn't what society thinks he should be, doesn't mean he doesn't think,have feelings, or is brilliant!

  25. Ha! I love this! I ALWAYS freeze and end up feeling like an ass 🙂

  26. Anonymous

    My son didn't start asking for items until he was 13. Now his list is long and very detailed. He is 18 years old……his list this year includes many Barney, Teletubby VHS Tapes, CapnCrunch, Pepsi and tons of Disney Read Along Cassettes.

    I have no advice for small talk. That has gotten worse with time unfortunately. I have a hard time relating to people. I think having a severely autistic son will make you that way.

  27. Tarra

    as a nt parent i have to say all i know to talk about is my kids…. I suck at regular small talk that doesnt involve my kids, so im not much help except to say i think your answers were typical of a father lol, so dont sweat it.

  28. Ryan's mom

    I have five kids and Ryan is my middle one. He also is severe non verbal autism. I deal with parents from both sides. I find I need to sometimes be with my friends without autistic kids to be away from it all and then end up aggravated over the fact that their biggest issue is who is driving where and going where this weekend. I think you did a great job, it is all about how comfortable you are and when you want to talk about it. Your son, your life, your choice!!!

  29. I totally feel your pain there. I am totally the social awkward dork when it comes to small talk about kids with people whose children are "typical."

  30. Anonymous

    I think you handled it great, as you say what is no one else's business is no one else's business, you never need to exploit your child or your life and they probably didn't detect any "WTP" in your answers, unless they're nosey women. I don't even use the "A" word with my family because the second it slips out that is what EVERYONE remembers about you and your family, that you're a "special needs family" and we here are so much more than that! Love you and your posts, they create community more than any other A-word related site I've ever visited in the past 2.5 years since we got the dx. Thanks! Rachel

  31. Anonymous

    I'm still in the witness protection program…I also don't want "A" to consume my life – or my child's – more than it HAS to; which is difficult.

  32. I know. Most of my patients know I have 3 kids with autism. But when people are clueless and you just want banter, not discussion it's not on the topic list. And if you drop the word, everything freezes. And then have to cope with "Oh, I'm so sorry." *I'm* not sorry, this is just life as we know it. But on anything but a very superficial level, we have nothing in common.

  33. Patty(the other King Kyle's Mom)

    My son is 9 & just started"getting" the holidays last year. Hang in there! As for the small talk, I would have answered just like you did if I was with people I don't feel like hearing from how there secretary's neighbors cousin's friends Dentist has a relative with Autism.

  34. Anonymous

    Had similiar conversation with a nurse today also.Wanted to know if I had finished my shopping yet, I told him my oldest son I'm giving cash to and my (21) yr. old I finished my shopping with him a month or so ago, because I get all his stuff on e-bay. He looked kinda like he wanted to ask why e-bay? Didn't feel like sharing the whole experience of why I have to, so I just said, he likes unusual things. Could you imagine the look if I said, I already received his vintage vacuum cleaner one of 10 he didn't have yet, or any book or toy showing lawnmowers, a 1992 Fisher Price cassett radio that finially died after replaying three blind mice 19,874 time in the last 21 yrs. I was so excited I got that same radio in brand new condition, that makes my Christmas already!

    1. Anonymous

      Yes, buy more before you can't find them anymore. We've found out the hard way, stockpiling duplicates is the way to go.

      My son is a hoarder, so his room spilled out into our house years ago. My kitchen cabinets are filling with his "things"…..

    2. Anonymous

      Oh, wow! Our son is almost 15 and we basically replace his worn out toys on holidays now, too. This made me realize that a day may come that we can't find replacements anymore!!! Oh, the horror! I better get busy stockpiling!!!

    3. There needs to be a like button. Way to go on the cassette player!

    4. Anonymous

      Sounds very cool…wtg with the cassette player.

  35. glenna miller

    Sounds to me like you handled it perfectly. If the truth be known they probably didnt want to know anyway-just making small talk. By the way–I LOVE YOUR POSTINGS!!!!!!!!

  36. I always throw questions back at them. Ask them about their kids etc etcPeople LOVE to talk about themselves and the more air time you give them the more they like YOU. Isnt that a riot!

    I will drop the big "A" bomb if I am feeling especially annoyed at the lameness of conversation.. I live in very shallow Los Angeles.. so when I drop the "A" bomb it makes them all secretly grateful for their lives and stops the whining!!

  37. I love this. My daughters are high functioning yet I often feel this way when talking to NT parents. Our reality is so foreign to outsiders. We tend to smile and nod 😉