A Regular Guy Growing Up with Autism

San Francisco Chronicle
January 15, 2006
Link to original article

San Francisco Chronicle

Do you want me to come in with you while you get your haircut?” “No,” replies my 19-year-old son Matthew. “I want him to think I drove here by myself.”

When I suggest that he remove the junior sheriff sticker from his T-shirt before he goes in, he refuses.

“I want him to think I take care of bad guys.”

Matthew is autistic, and wants to be a regular guy in the worst way. But he is crippled by a social awkwardness that, try as we have, we can’t train out of him. Earlier in the day, we had been to the dentist, where Matthew read “The Care Bears Go to the Dentist” while waiting. To look at his face, you would think he was reading “Paradise Lost.” I sat next to him with a straight face while the packed waiting room stifled laughter. And who could blame them?

Most of the people in the waiting room have seen Matthew around town and wondered about him. They have seen him at the skateboard store, pretending he works there, and at the hardware store with his large hands wrapped around a bottle of weed killer, studying the label earnestly. They have seen him pushing a gas-powered lawnmower around town with a weed whacker and a leaf blower stacked on top.

What is with that kid?

Matthew doesn’t want just to be a regular guy. He wants to be the guy, the poisonous plant and weed expert, and the lawn-care authority of our East Bay community of Lafayette. He’s been known to approach strangers with warnings about deadly nightshade, oleander and water hemlock. Some snicker and walk away, others show a glimpse of understanding and stop to chat. They make his day, and I know my smile of gratitude makes theirs.

“He would be really good looking if he weren’t autistic,” my 12-year-old son says of Matthew, and as unkind as it sounds, I know what he means. Matthew is handsome, with a tall and wiry frame, broad shoulders and sandy blond hair. His eyebrows arch dramatically to frame his brown eyes, and his jaw is square. But his exaggerated expressions and body carriage set him apart. His forehead twists with intensity, he smiles too suddenly and too widely, his hungry-for-friendship gaze is desperate. He doesn’t pick up on subtle social cues, like when to step back, when to change the subject from poisonous plants to anything more universal, and he doesn’t understand that it is not cool to ask a girl if she has ever had a seizure. He likes to wear dark socks and sandals, shorts and a T-shirt that says Shumaker Landscaping, with our phone number below. The phone number, of course, is not for soliciting business as Matthew would like to believe, but for identification purposes.

“Is this Shumaker Landscaping? There is a man mowing my lawn, and I already have a gardener. Could you please get him to stop?”

Matthew has been attending Camphill Special School in Pennsylvania since he was 16, a year when he decided that he should drive a car like a regular guy and drove my car through a wall in our garage. There were other close calls. One day during his freshman year at our local high school, he observed a guy pushing his girlfriend flirtatiously and then tapping her on the head. When Matthew tried the same move with too much force, I was summoned to his school where he was crying in the principal’s office. “Joe did it to Sue, and she liked it!” Just when we thought things were calming down following this incident, we got a letter from an attorney asking us to contact him about the bicycle accident involving Matthew. It turned out that while riding his bike, Matthew had apparently collided with a young boy on his bike the month before.

“Matthew? What’s this about a bike accident?”

“Who told you?”

“Someone sent me a letter. Was the boy you bumped into hurt?”

“Pretty much.”

Dear God.

“Was he bleeding?”

“Probably. Am I in trouble?”

My husband and I came to the heartbreaking conclusion that Matthew was no longer safe in the community where he had grown up, and his impulsive actions were putting others in peril. He needed more supervision, more than we or the local school could provide.

The good news now is that Matthew is thriving at Camphill, and is an important part of its community of disabled people. He goes to class, cooks and does his own laundry. He prunes trees, tends an organic garden and takes care of the grass. During the winter he shovels snow gleefully, and has become fascinated with weather patterns in the Northeast. He brags about his newfound responsibilities, and tells us he is good at hard things. When he graduates from this school, he hopes to live in the Camphill community in Santa Cruz.

But he’ll be home for spring break, and if you’re lucky, you might spot him walking around town with his garden tools, rain or shine, just a regular working guy. His mother is the blonde hiding behind the wheel of her Toyota Highlander, or behind a bush, keeping her eye on her firstborn son. Just a regular mom with a giant lump in her throat.

Laura Shumaker lives in Lafayette with her husband, Peter, and her three teenage boys. She has recently completed a memoir about life with an autistic son.

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