Autism: Educate thy neighbor

It was a beautiful April afternoon in Lafayette. Matthew, who is now 26, was approaching his fourteenth birthday and painting with watercolors peacefully while his younger brothers Andy and John kicked the soccer ball around in our backyard. We had had our share of bumpy days lately, but this was not one of them.

The mail came, and in the midst of the catalogs and bills was an official-looking envelope addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Peter Shumaker that got my attention.

On letterhead from the offices of attorney Casper White, it read:

“I am writing you regarding the bicycle accident involving your son, Matthew, on March 8, 2002 (about a month before) blah, blah, blah, I am representing so-and-so who was injured in the accident, please contact me, etc.”

I walked into the kitchen where Matthew was painting and asked, “Did you have an accident on your bike?”

“Who told you?” Mathew replied calmly.

“Someone wrote me a letter about it. Were you hurt?”

“Not really.”

“Who else was in the accident?”

“A boy.”

Oh, my God.

“Was he hurt?”


“Was he bleeding?”

“Pretty much.”

God help me.

“Matthew,” my voice quaking, “did an ambulance come?”

“I give up. I’m done talking about this.”

He resumed painting, at which point I lost it.

“Matthew! I need to know what happened! Where did this happen? Was there anyone there that you know? Did anyone ask you questions?”

Matthew’s lower lip quivered as he tapped his paintbrush nervously on the table. “Am I in trouble?”he whimpered.

I took a breath and said, “No, of course not. You just paint and we’ll talk about this later.”

I hugged him and he choked back a few sobs and continued painting.I went back to my bedroom and called the attorney, my eye on the blue bike in the backyard.

According to the attorney, his client and nine-year-old son were riding bikes at the middle school around the corner. Matthew crashed into the younger boy, stopped for a moment, then fled. The boy broke his leg. Badly. He would be in a wheelchair for six weeks. The family had no medical insurance.

“I understand your son has autism.

My mind raced to the conclusions made by the boy’s family, the attorney, and our community. This thirteen-year-old autistic boy is riding his bike without supervision, collides with and injures a child, and leaves the scene. His parents are negligent. He is a danger to those around him.

“He wants to ride his bike at the playground like any thirteen-year-old. I can’t watch him every second,” I would counter.

But I knew that Matthew couldn’t manage these kinds of situations like most thirteen-year-old boys, so I’d hired after-school helpers to take him for bike rides and other activities. Still,  Matthew was not supervised every second. I tried to keep track of him, but he snuck out regularly.

But this accident had happened weeks ago–How did the attorney get Matthew’s name and address?

“From a neighbor who didn’t want to be identified.”

To this day, I wonder which neighbor it was, and wish I’d been more approachable back then. But I was so overwhelmed, which is why Matthew was riding his bike unsupervised in the first place!

What I didn’t know was that my neighbors were curious about Matthew and about our family. They wanted to know “what the deal was”. They wanted to help (or at least to understand.)

Give your neighbors credit. They, too, might have messy lives. But if they know what you are facing, they’ll do there best to help you. If you don’t feel up to running around the neighborhood and explaining things face to face, start by printing up a little information sheet with some particulars about your child. You can start with this list of the basics:

1) Autism is a neurological disorder; not a disease. It is a broad spectrum disorder, meaning that people with autism can be a little autistic or very autistic. Thus, it is possible to be bright, verbal, and autistic as well as mentally retarded, non-verbal and autistic.

2) All share deficits to some degree in three areas: social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication, and repetitive behaviors or interests. In addition, many have unusual responses to sensory experiences, such as certain sounds or the way objects look.

3) “They” are not all alike. Individuals with autism have unique challenges, quirks, and interests. People with autism can be hard to figure out. Don’t be afraid to ask their parents or caretakers questions.

4) There is no proven cure for autism-yet. Autism is a lifelong diagnosis. That’s not to say that people with autism don’t improve, because many improve radically with  treatment. But even when people with autism increase their skills, they are still autistic, which means they think and perceive differently from most people.

5) No one is sure what causes autism. Theories range from   mercury in infant vaccines(a theory that has been hyped up by celebrities, not scientists who maintain there is NO link)to genetics to the age of the parents to almost everything else. At present, most researchers think autism is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors – and it’s quite possible that different people’s symptoms have different causes.

Another great way to educate you neighbor is with THIS video and the following links

What’s it like to have autism?

Autism and the wandering problem

Autism and Law Enforcement

Tribute to nice friends


You might keep a few bottles of wine and boxes of chocolate on hand –just in case!