parent opinion

To the store manager yelling at my 18-year-old son who lives with autism.

Dear Angry Retail Store Manager,

My son’s autism presents its fair share of challenges. Achieving that which he sets his mind to is rarely one of them. So, when he decided over the holidays that he would get a job at your store, he knew it would be difficult for him. Yet, he pursued it with the tenacity he gives every thought that finds itself locked into his beautifully fierce mind.

But you wouldn’t know this.

At 18, he has become accustomed to advocating for himself over the years — a skill we have worked tirelessly at in countless IEP meetings at school.

But you wouldn’t know this.

Watch: This is what life is like with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Post continues after. 

Video by Autistica

He completed his application on his own and secured an interview where although by law he has no obligation to do so, he disclosed his diagnosis to the hiring manager. We have discussed the pros and cons of this. I believe strongly that by being open about ourselves we offer others the opportunity to understand something they might not have understood before.

I have instilled in him that there is no shame in his diagnosis and that it comes with many strengths and some weaknesses, as is the case with us all.

One of the qualities I admire most about him is that he chooses to focus on his strengths: his attention to detail, his ability to see a task through to completion, and his appreciation for rules, systems, and procedures.

Naturally, these are characteristics that a large national retail establishment like yours can appreciate. He was quickly hired for the online fulfilment department which was a perfect fit for his skill-set and abilities.

He doesn’t yet drive so he walks to work and makes sure to get there 30 minutes before each shift to give himself time to prepare mentally.

When the store was closed and his shift was over, I would pick him up and listen on the way home as he gushed about his day at work and how good it felt to finally be told he was good at something. Since school has always been very difficult for him and he feels like he has had more failures than successes, this new praise was treasured by him.


But you wouldn’t know this.

He quickly shined in his position and stood out among the other high school and seasonal hires. So much so, in fact, that he was asked to stay on as a permanent employee. While some might scoff at being offered a permanent retail position, he was on top of the world about it.

But you wouldn’t know this.

Unfortunately, there were no available positions in his department so he was offered one as a cart attendant. He knew that having to change positions after finally finding his stride in the one he had would be difficult, but he was excited and eager for the challenge and grateful for the opportunity. He felt accomplished.

But you wouldn’t know this.

It has rained nearly every single shift since he started cart duty. While he worked outside night after night, it was the coldest February here in 60 years. I knew how hard it had to be for him being cold, wet, and uncomfortable and how he agonises when his shoes get dirty in the puddles. Yet he was determined to overcome his discomfort and to succeed and impress.

But you wouldn’t know this.

Where he thrived in the repetitiveness of shipping and fulfilment, this new position has proven difficult. He has had to work for several different managers, including you. Each manager has their own unique way of doing things and different priorities — the Kryptonite to someone who thrives on routine and rigidity. He desperately wants to do everything right, but everyone keeps telling him different things for what “right” should be.

But you probably don’t know this.

Melinda Hildebrandt speaks candidly to Mia Freedman about parenting her daughter who has autism. Post continues after audio.

So you yell at him. Every night.

You don’t know how hard he is trying and how desperately he wants to do a good job and gain your approval and acceptance for his efforts.

You don’t know that it isn’t that he doesn’t care, but rather that he cares too much. He actually wants to do it perfectly. He just needs to know in no uncertain terms what the right way is and for it to not change every day.

You don’t know why he needs this job. You don’t know that he needs it to prove to himself that he is capable. You don’t know that he needs it to reassure himself that there is a place for him in this world as an adult.

You don’t know that this job, which you probably hate and could leave for another whenever you want, has been the one place he has felt like he might belong for maybe the first time in his life. He would even talk of staying on and working his way up.


Something has changed when I pick him up now. He looks beaten down and defeated. He is frustrated and disappointed in himself. He is ready to quit and feels that this is destined to become a failure on what he feels is an endless list of them.

The mama bear in me wants to show up and set you straight — to yell at you as you have him. But he is nearly an adult and wishes to handle his own battles. Yet another reason I have so much respect for him.

So I don’t show up to yell at you.

Instead, on the drive home, I listen to his heart break as he desperately tries to make sense of the changing expectations and recites his frustration at the numerous lapses in policies and procedures by you and others that he observes on his shifts.

I try to provide him with helpful tips from my own workplace challenges and lessons learned over the years on how to handle difficult coworkers and managers.

I also remind myself that you don’t know what he’s dealing with. With that reminder comes the realization that none of us know what anyone is dealing with and why someone does things the way they do.

Maybe you yell because your husband lost his job and you are forced to work nights and are resentful that you cannot be home to tuck in your kids.

Maybe you lash out because you are a single mom working more than one job and are barely getting by in this ridiculously expensive city and are stressed beyond measure.

Maybe a family member has fallen ill and moved in with you and you have found yourself supporting more people than you can reasonably afford.

Hell, maybe you have your own child with special needs and are tapped out from dealing with behaviors at home and are frustrated you have to deal with similar ones at work where you are supposed to be able to escape to some form of normalcy for a few hours a day.

But I don’t know this.

What I do know is that my son is doing the best that he can. Maybe you are too. I like to believe that we all are most of the time.
So I am not going to come to the store to yell at you.

What I am going to do is hope that maybe you, and all of us for that matter, will try to be a little more patient and understanding. Because the truth is, we all have things we are dealing or struggling with and, most of the time, it’s just that no one else knows it.

This post originally appeared on Medium and has been republished with full permission. For more from Jennifer Hulst, you can find her here or on her Twitter

For support and information about autism, you can the Autism Advisory and Support Service (AASS) 24-hour Autism Hotline on 1300 222 777. You can also find more information about resources and support at

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