An excerpt from A REGULAR GUY: GROWING UP WITH AUTISM.
(you can read the first 3 chapters HERE.)
I sat on the sofa that looks out our living room window, my attention torn between the People magazine in my lap, and Matthew, who was sitting cross legged on the front lawn, inspecting — or was he dismembering? — a dead butterfly. A heap of laundry on and around the coffee table nagged at me – I was just too tired, too scattered. Peter wandered in from the kitchen, beer in hand.
“Right there,” I said frostily, motioning to Matthew.
Saturdays were hard, and seemed to go on forever. Someone always had to keep track of Matthew – and one of us always thought he or she was doing more than the other.
In truth, keeping track of Matthew was an impossible task, and we were both doing our best. In earlier days, we had alternated taking Matthew for hikes or to the movies.Â We took him to Tilden Park for train and merry-go-round rides over and over again. We went through a stage when Peter took him to a small local airport to watch the planes take off for hours. But at age fourteen, he preferred the company of kids his age, and was good at finding the ones who liked to challenge him to spitting contests and walks to pot smoking hideouts in the local cemetery. We were constantly searching for him, trying to redirect him”¦ and running out of steam.
Suddenly, the view out of our living room window changed, and I felt my feet planting firmly into the red oriental carpet, ready to act. An elderly Asian woman and her husband walked by our house slowly, and said something to Matthew. The woman was shaking her head and pointing at the butterfly that Matthew was”¦ playing with.
“Uh oh”¦” Peter and I mumbled in unison. Before we could move, Matthew picked up a rock and hurled it at the woman, hitting her in her shoulder.
Peter flew out the front door, grabbed Matthew and dragged him inside while I apologized profusely to the couple. It was clear they didn’t speak English, so I clarified Matthew’s situation by pointing at him, then pointing my index finger at my temple, twirling it around and saying “Crazy”. They nodded sympathetically and went on their way.
By the time I got into the house, things were heating up.
“She didn’t look nice!”Â Matthew yelled at Peter, who gripped Matthew’s upper arm firmly.
Uh, oh. Peter’s going to lose it.
“You don’t throw rocks at people who look at you funny when you are doing something FREAKY!” Peter roared.
Matthew went nuts, and started punching and scratching him. It seemed that Matthew became stronger with every meltdown.
“Don’t hit back!” I yelled at Peter, who succeeded in pinning Matthew to the hardwood floor.
I could tell Peter was tempted, and I didn’t blame him. This wasn’t the first time Matthew had attacked”¦Peter and I have jagged scars on our hands and arms from similar incidents.
Matthew got loose and kicked a hole in the wall before I could pick up the phone and call 911.
Within a minute, the doorbell rang. I opened the door, and there stood Officer Jones in his navy blue uniform, complete with badge, gun in holster, and club.
I had never seen a situation diffuse so magically.
The first person to speak was Matthew.
“Oops,” he said, as if all that had taken place had been accidental. A piece of sheetrock lay at his feet, its powder covering his right calf.
Officer Jones was medium height and build, with a black crew cut and a passive expression on his face, like a young Joe Friday.Â He spoke calmly and quietly.
“Please tell me what happened,” he said. There wasn’t a hint of anger or threat in his voice.
“The lady didn’t look nice” Matthew explained, “and I sort of threw a rock at her.”
“And I told him you don’t attack people who look at you funny!” Peter injected, heating up once again.
Officer Jones’s expression remained spookily unchanged.
“Mrs. Shumaker called 911 because of a domestic altercation. Who started it?” he asked smoothly.
“Autistic“ I whispered to the officer from over his right shoulder-he looked at me as if I were a nut, but paused and processed my clue while Matthew proceeded.
“I sort of hit my dad first, but then he hit me next.”
God help us.
“Matthew, I didn’t hit you” Peter said, glancing sideways at the policeman. “I held you down so you would stop hitting me and kicking holes in the wall!” I looked at Peter and cringed. Normally a buttoned up kind of guy, today he happened to be wearing a white threadbare undershirt with two small holes an inch above his left nipple. I scanned the room for his beer bottle and casually kicked some unfolded laundry behind the couch. A bra got tangled around my ankle, and I stumbled to regain my balance.
The officer seemed unmoved, and his ponderous silence made us nervous. After a moment, he spoke.
“Matthew, your father is right. You must never throw rocks at people. If someone upsets you, find a parent and let one of them handle things. You must never hit your parents. Do you understand?”
“Am I going to jail?” Matthew whimpered, obviously humiliated to have disappointed this powerful figure.
“Can I talk to you for a minute?” Matthew asked the officer, his voice quavering, his expression pained. I could tell he was hurt by the gulf that had formed between us.Â ” I don’t want my parents to hear.”
Peter and I listened from the next room while Matthew and the officer chatted on the couch. I could see only the upper right quadrant of the officer’s face. Matthew told him how hard it was when people made fun of him. He told him how lonely he feels when his brothers go out with friends, and he has no one to hang out with.
“I have friends,” he said, “but they’re really busy.”
Matthew told Officer Jones that girls look nice, and that he would like to be able to touch their hair, even though it’s against the rules, and that his Grandma was really sick and might die. The officer listened, the expression on his face softening ever so slightly. Just as Matthew was about to show him his room and his middle school yearbook, the officer’s radio crackled–something about a shoplifting incident at the convenience store on the main drag.
“It was nice talking to you, Matthew. Will you remember what we talked about?”
“I surely will,” Matthew said resolutely. “Do you think you can come over again if I need to talk?”
My poor, lonely boy”¦he had made a connection, a friend. I never thought there would be a day when I would want a police call to last a little longer.
“Matthew, I am happy to talk with you, but I never want to come to this house again if you have thrown a rock, or hit your parents, or put a hole in the wall. Do you understand?”
“Do you ever shoot bad guys?” Matthew asked, trying to keep things going a little longer.
“Only if I have to. I really have to take this “¦” as his radio barked with urgency.
“But you’ll remember what we talked about?” he asked, placing his hand gently on Matthew’s shoulder. Matthew nodded his assent, tears welling up in his eyes. Officer Jones could have turned to me and asked me for a new police dog. I surely would have given it to him.
Matthew walked his new friend to his car”¦I thought I heard him ask the officer if he’d ever had a seizure – and off he went. I stood with Matthew, patting his back lightly as he watched the police cruiser drive away.
“Does Officer Jones think I’m a good guy or a bad guy?” Matthew sputtered.
“He thinks you are a wonderful guy.” I said.
“I’m not going to jail?” Matthew heaved.
“No, honey. You’re not.” And Matthew fell against me and cried, tears of relief, regret, and confusion.
Matthew didn’t notice the curious neighbors peering out their windows.
I’ll give them a call later
But what could I tell them to preserve Matthew’s dignity?
“I hope he gets those bad guys.” Matthew said, trying to pull himself together.
“I’m sure he will. Let’s get you a cold washcloth and a drink of water.”
“I’m a good guy”¦” Matthew muttered, as we walked back into the house. I drenched a washcloth in ice-cold water and held it to his face as long as he would let me, and he went in his room and shut the door.
Peter and I sat at the dining room table, wiped out. We felt exposed, sad for Matthew, guilty for letting things get out of control. We marveled at how quickly Matthew responded to the police officer, and resolved to use his approach the next time.
But could we do it? Could we be firm and remain calm when Matthew throws a rock at someone, or kicked a hole in the wall, or reappeared after we had been searching for him for two hours?Â I could be a good actress, I thought. There was no way I could do it otherwise.
“What time is it?” I asked.
“4:59″ said Peter, and got up to pour me a glass of wine–it would be 5:00 by the time it reached my lips. Then he went in to see Matthew. I heard them talking quietly, then laughing–and off they went to get an ice cream cone.
I tried to remember the last time my parents had “lost it” with me. It had been a long, long time ago, and I didn’t remember the details. But I did remember feeling alone and scared. I craved for swift resolution to the bad feelings. I longed for the hug, for the tears of joy and relief, and for the laughter that followed.Â I remember going to bed feeling safe. Everything was going to be all right, and I was the luckiest girl in the world. And when Matthew bounded through the door, peppermint ice cream all over his face, I went to hug him, but he had moved on.
“Mom, I’m too busy for this!” and he ran to the back yard, and out the back gate, searching for the source of a sound that only he could hear. Peter gave me a quick kiss, and ran after Matthew, threadbare t-shirt and all.
Suddenly alone, I felt gripped with anxiety. I was haunted by the events of the afternoon- the look of disgust on the Asian woman’s face,Â the police car in the driveway, the curious neighbors. I saw Matthew’s tormented face, red from crying, and slick with a mixture of tears and slobber. I worried about Andy and John and knew they would hear from the kids at school”¦There was a police car at your house –again?
I knew that everything would not be all right.
nd then the doorbell rang. It was my neighbor, Dori. She held a loaf of banana bread and before I could thank her, she gave me a hug.
Then I lost it.