A Trip to the Hardware Store

An Excerpt from A Regular Guy: Growing Up With Autism

“Mom! I have something very important to tell you,” my eighteen-year-old son told me urgently. “We need to go to the hardware store.”

I took a deep breath. Another adventure with my autistic son was about to begin.

When we got to the store, Matthew rushed in and disappeared behind the shovels and the toilet seats. I followed, warily. He reappeared with the orange extension cord he’d had in mind.

“Mom, give me the money and let me buy this-like I’m a regular man.” His forehead was screwed up with intensity.

I handed him a twenty and told him to meet me outside.

I stood behind Matthew in line, clutching a bottle of Elmer’s glue I had grabbed. He wanted me to look like a regular woman, anonymous to him, shopping at Ace Hardware. I watched as Matthew put the extension cord on the counter and handed the saleslady the twenty-dollar bill.

She was Flo, an old-timer with a bouffant hairdo and painted-on eyebrows. I saw the two of them having a little conversation, and I could tell by the confused look on Flo’s face that she might need my help. But I held back anxiously to respect Matthew’s wishes.

After what seemed like an eternity, Matthew paid for the extension cord and stepped outside to wait for me as I marched up to Flo, placing the glue on the counter.

“See that guy?” she whispered. I glanced out the door and saw Matthew standing there with a self-satisfied look on his face. “He’s got mental problems!”

“What did he say?” I asked with a heavy heart.

“He walks up here with his extension cord, and he says, “˜Are rhododendrons poisonous to goats?’ And I says, “˜I don’t know.’ Then he just starts laughing and walks out with his extension cord!”

“He’s my son,” I confessed. “I should have explained when I came in. He’s autistic.”

“Autistic? You mean like the Rain Man?” she asked, looking mortified.

“Well, sort of,” I replied. Best not to go into a big explanation right now. “He wanted me to let him buy something at the store like he was a regular guy.”

“I feel terrible!” Flo said. “But he must know he’s different.” Realizing that Matthew’s hopes, dreams, and lack of self-awareness would be too hard to explain, I shrugged and took my glue.

Flo had no idea how many times I had said to Matthew, “If you want to be treated like a regular guy, you’ve got to act like a regular guy!” or “Regular guys don’t talk about poisonous plants all the time!” Unfortunately, social awkwardness is wired into Matthew’s brain, and no amount of instruction or reasoning was going to change that.

I glanced at Matthew as we drove home, and I could tell by the strange smile on his face that he had moved on from his “regular man” frame of mind to the absurd.

“What would happen if Dad ate an oleander?” he asked, grinning crazily, and the lump that had been in my throat on and off since his birth returned.

About the author

Laura Shumaker is a nationally recognized writer, autism and disabilities advocate. Her essays have appeared in many places, including the New York Times, CNN, NPR, and in a popular autism and disabilities blog for The San Francisco Chronicle. She’s the mother of three terrific sons, and her oldest son, Matthew, is the subject of her book A Regular Guy: Growing Up with Autism.


  1. Jennifer says

    The older my son gets, the more I’m concerned about interactions like this. It is so hard to help him act like a ‘regular guy’ without making him feel like ‘his regular’ isn’t good enough.
    Thank you for giving me something to pass on to others.


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