(an excerpt from A REGULAR GUY: GROWING UP WITH AUTISM)
The day before Matthew’s first day of high school, I pushed open the door to Joe’s Barbershop, the intense August heat on my back. Matthew trailed behind me, a big expectant smile on his face. He went straight for the lollipops on the counter, the ones you are supposed to get after the haircut.
Trips with Matthew to Joe, the barber, were a treat. They gave me a glimpse of “normal” as the two settled into a regular barbershop conversation that Joe modified to accommodate Matthew’s interests.
Instead of “How about that ballgame,” it was “Seen any poisonous plants lately?”
The barbershop was known and revered by the students at the local high school and the small private college nearby.
“Laura, you don’t look so good,” said Joe as he swept up from the last customer, and he was right. I looked like hell. I was tired and drawn, and I hadn’t smiled in quite a while.
“Joe, you wouldn’t know of any college students who are looking for, uh, babysitting jobs.”
I knew right away I should have used a different term.
“I’m not a baby! I’m a teenager and I don’t need babysitters!” yelled Matthew.
“What I mean, Matthew, is a cool guy for you to hang out with. ”
“As a matter of fact,” said Joe, “I know a really nice kid who’s looking for work. He’s a freshman at the college. He left his phone number on the bulletin board.”
“Do you know anything about him?” I asked, holding up the scrap of paper with Ben’s number on it.
“Not much. Seems nice enough,” he replied. I envisioned a nerdy, scrawny, homesick kid who didn’t have a social life and had decided he might as well babysit. I had no problem with that. I needed help.
Adolescence had kicked Matthew’s impulsive behavior into high gear. He had become an escape artist, and I was often seen cruising around town in my minivan, anxiously searching for him. On these excursions, Matthew approached kids his age and begged them for friendship. He stood too close to girls and asked them if he could touch their hair. Faced with frequent police visits and neighborhood complaints, I would deliver flowers, bottles of wine, and cookies to those who had been upset by Matthew’s shenanigans. Damage control had become my way of life.
I circulated brochures about autism to neighbors and law enforcement, who thought Matthew’s behavior might be drug-related. Through it all, I worried about John and Andy, and about how Matthew’s public scenes affected them. It was an unsettling time, and I was a wreck. Maybe this nice college boy could give me a hand.
I called Ben later that afternoon and left a message. His phone message said something like, “Yo, here comes the beep, you know what to do.”
Maybe he wasn’t such a nerd after all.
Ben called back the next morning and we arranged an interview for the next day. He sounded pretty normal on the phone. He mentioned that he played football for Saint Mary’s College. Hmm. . .
One of my friends had stopped by to borrow a cup of sugar when the doorbell rang. I opened the door, and there he was—tall, blond, and unbelievably handsome. He kicked off his shoes as he entered the house and put his hand out to shake mine.
My friend stood there, her jaw on the floor.
There was something in his eyes. It was a kind, sympathetic look that went straight to my heart. I knew nothing about this boy, or what kind of experience he had had, but I knew he was special.
“You don’t have to take off your shoes,” I said.
“I have two brothers. My mom always makes us take our shoes off when we come in the house,” he said, smiling.
Ben told me a little bit about himself. The sympathetic look turned sorrowful when he related that he had lost his father a few years back in a car accident, and that his mother was working hard to put her three college-age sons through school. He wanted to work as much as possible to lighten her load.
I, in turn, explained our situation to Ben, and he listened, nodding compassionately. He admitted that he knew nothing about autism, but was willing to learn. While I was telling Ben about some of Matthew’s behaviors, and how best to handle them, Matthew emerged from his room, where he had been playing video games.
“Matthew, this is Ben,” I said cautiously.
“He looks good,” Matthew announced. Ben took Matthew out that very afternoon.
“Maybe you can play basketball or go for a hike or—”
“We’ll be fine,” said Ben reassuringly, and off they went in his blue pickup.
When they came back, Ben and Matthew looked tired and happy—almost fraternal. They had driven to Ben’s dorm room to hang out, gone for pizza, and listened to music. Ben had shown Matthew the football stadium where he played and had introduced him to some of the guys on the team. They had gone to the pool and done cannonballs off the diving board. Guy stuff.
I handed Ben a generous check—bribery, of course—and asked if he would be interested in coming again. “Sure!” he answered enthusiastically. I gave him some information about autism to read over, and he went to find Matthew before he left.
“See ya tomorrow, my man,” he said to Matthew, to which Matthew replied “That’s cool” and swaggered out to see Ben zoom off in his truck.
Ben became a fixture at our house, coming three or four times a week to hang out with Matthew. John and Andy always ran out to meet Ben when his blue truck rolled into the driveway.
“Come look at my new guitar!” said Andy.
“I got a new video game!” John called. Ben spread the wealth of his presence, but remained loyal to Matthew and heeded his call.
“Andy and John, I’m sorry to have to tell you this,” said Matthew, “but Ben is my friend and not yours. We are very busy and don’t want to be messed with. Let’s go, Ben.”
Not all of their outings together were totally fun and games, and Ben worked hard to manage Matthew’s public peculiarities, coaching him gently through his social awkwardness. He explained that “How’s it going?” works better than “Do you like me?” and showed him how to nod his head oh-so-slightly in the process.
I paid Ben well and often sent him home with clean laundry and a batch of cookies. But there were many times when he would drop Matthew off and refuse payment.
“It wouldn’t be right, we had too much fun,” he would say, even as I attempted to throw a wad of well-deserved money into his truck as he drove off laughing.
Matthew loved going to the mall with Ben. His charismatic good looks and great personality attracted an array of pretty, flirty girls who would otherwise run from Matthew’s desperate, hungry gaze.
“Hey, man, you’ve gotta be cool. Don’t stand so close. Girls don’t like that.”
Ben’s influence on Matthew proved the phrase “The impact of the message depends on the messenger.” He welcomed my calls for help when my message failed to make an impression.
Ben? Matthew’s having a hard time understanding that he shouldn’t put his arm around a girl he doesn’t know. Can you talk to him?
Ben stayed connected to our family through his four years of college and even went on vacations with us during the summer to help with Matthew, but he always blended in like a member of the family.
“Four sons!” said a grandmotherly type one night when we all went out to dinner.
“Yeah,” replied Ben, winking at me. “Isn’t our mom the best?” I blushed.
At Ben’s graduation, I overheard one of his uncles exclaim, “Now all he has to do is convince someone to hire him!”
But I knew that whoever was lucky enough to get him would never regret it.