NEIGHBORS

 

AN EXCERPT FROM A REGULAR GUY: GROWING UP WITH AUTISM

I worried about how Matthew would fit into the new neighborhood. I thought about circulating a flyer that would explain him and his behavior, but I was so preoccupied with my mother’s health that I never got around to it.

My father would later admit that he’d thought she would die the day he’d taken her to the emergency room from what turned out to be a blood clot in her lung and pulmonary fibrosis.

“But with the right medicine, respiratory therapy, and rest,” said my ever-reassuring father, “she’ll be on her feet in no time.”

Our move to the new neighborhood coincided with Matthew’s latest obsession, one that made us question the efficacy of Luvox, the drug meant to curb his obsessive-compulsive symptoms—balloons. I was guilty of launching the balloon phase when I started buying them for him as a reward for a good day at school. Then one day, Matthew saw an airplane fly overhead with a banner attached to it, and he started taping signs to his balloons. He would let the balloon go and imagine where it might land.

“This is a grandma’s all better now balloon,” he said once. “It’s going all the way to Carmel.”

I became keenly aware of how many damn balloons were everywhere. If I saw a balloon around town, I would make a mental note and take a different route when driving with Matthew.

Why? Because I knew that Matthew would not rest until any balloon in his path was freed. One time, he impulsively cut a balloon loose near a freeway, and it dipped down close to the speeding cars. I held my breath, shuddering to think of the disaster he could have caused.

One sunny Saturday, I was about to make the rounds of the neighborhood to search for Matthew, who had disappeared, when the doorbell rang.

Uh-oh.

I opened the door gingerly and saw my neighbor Sarah, hands on her hips, looking very angry. Sarah was a stunning blond in her mid-thirties with a handsome husband and two small sons. I had met her briefly when we had moved to the neighborhood a few months before, but we never connected. I had attributed this to our age difference—and to Matthew.

“I think your son stole a balloon off our mailbox,” she growled.

“Yes, I’m sure he did,” I said. “I’ll go get another one right now.”

My keys and purse in the front hallway, I started toward the garage.

Sarah looked surprised by my cooperation, but a little frustrated that she couldn’t finish her diatribe. I paused and let her finish.

“I have heard he steals a lot of balloons and—”

She stopped, seeing the anguish on my face.

“I know,” I said, my voice cracking. Don’t start crying, Laura. Just keep it together. “I’ll be right back with the balloon.”

And off I went, to the party store where they knew me well, feeling stupid. As I drove off, I saw Sarah stomp back to her house where a few couples were standing. I imagined their conversation.

“You went to old lady Shumaker’s house? Wow! What’s she like? Did you tell her off? Good! Where’s she going now?”

I pulled up to Sarah’s house eight minutes later with a red balloon and rang the doorbell. No answer. I heard the sounds of a birthday party behind the gate to their backyard and slipped through it. As I passed the garbage cans, garden tools, and blue plastic wading pool, about sixty multicolored balloons came into view. There were also streamers and happy birthday signs and a large piñata, but the sight of the balloons—she could have replaced the stolen balloon with one of them—floored me.

Sarah strode over, unfazed.

“Thank you,” she said curtly, snatching the balloon.

I got the hell out of there.

After this incident, I tightened the reins on Matthew and avoided driving by Sarah’s. “Tightening the reins” meant constant surveillance, which was not appreciated by my son. If I was distracted by a phone call or even a sneeze, Matthew would make a run for it. I tried to put myself in the position of Sarah and the other neighbors and could imagine them discussing us.

“I know the kid’s got a problem, but they ought to. . . ”

Ought to what? I had investigated tracking devices, but at that time they were only available for military and law enforcement. I thought a gadget that would deliver a beeping sound or a mild shock might work, but Dr. Hoffman advised against it. I had friends who monitored their kids with walkie-talkies, but they only work when both parties agree to stay in touch.

About a year after the Sarah incident, I got a call from another neighbor, Jean, a good friend of Sarah’s, inviting me over. Was this an intervention? I thought. No, she and Sarah were having a neighborhood coffee and could I join the group? I said yes right away, thanked her, hung up the phone, and burst into tears.

Matthew was not my only worry at the time. My mother’s health continued to deteriorate, and she now relied on oxygen apparatus to keep her going. I also worried about Andy, who had always been outgoing, but who had withdrawn considerably in the last year. He continued to do well in school and was well-liked, but he’d stopped having friends over and refused invitations. He had grown weary of the daily grind—the explanations, the outbursts, the lonely times when we were so preoccupied with managing Matthew. He didn’t want to bother us with the ups and downs of his life. Peter and I asked Andy if he wanted to talk to a counselor about his feelings, and he said he did not. Looking back, I think he wanted to be removed from the category of those who needed therapeutic intervention, like Matthew.

While I needed my mother more than ever, I tried to protect her from my escalating difficulties with Matthew and saved them instead for my sessions with Rebecca. I thought I was a convincing actress, but Mom picked up the strain in my voice in our daily 8:00 a.m. call the morning of the neighborly gathering.

“Oh! And I’m getting together with some women in the neighborhood!”

“You mean the ones that don’t like Matthew? No wonder you sound tense.”

She went on to tell me that obviously these women could see what a wonderful person I was and were coming around.

“They need you more than you need them!”

She encouraged me to take a breath, have fun, and not to apologize too much for Matthew, her sweet grandson.

The morning of the gathering, I told Peter that I thought I’d skip it and go to the gym. As he left for work he hugged me and told me to go and have fun, and that I would be the best-looking woman there. In the end, I decided I would go and show these people that I was a wonderful person, once voted most friendly in my high-school senior class, and that I was doing my best in an arduous situation. But I was in the mood to blend in with the crowd, not to be seen as the mother of the strange kid.

I laughed to myself as I approached Jean’s house with flowers from my garden in hand. Laura, your days of blending in are over. I marched forward, bolstered by the memory of my mother’s encouraging words and Peter’s loving smile as he had left for work that morning, knowing my trepidation.

I had visualized the gathering, walking in: a conference table in the living room, being encircled by the women of the neighborhood, fielding accusations as in a Senate hearing. Instead, I was absorbed into a group of friendly, good-looking women who ambled around a granite island in the kitchen, eating muffins, drinking coffee, and laughing a lot.

We talked about paint colors and kitchen remodels, babysitters and vacation spots. I tried to groove with the scene, but I had an overwhelming urge to clear the air by making a public apology about Matthew’s disruptive behavior, and to take the question-and-answer session about which I had fantasized. Then I remembered my mother’s advice and held back. The morning wasn’t just about me.

After about an hour the group started to break up, and I started to head for home. I thanked Sarah and Jean, and as I left, Sarah called out to me.

“How is Matthew doing?” she asked.

Don’t cry, Laura.

“A work in progress!” I joked. “I hope you’ll let me know if he bothers you, I’m always available—”

Oh, no. She’s coming toward me and being nice. “It must be so hard. Can I ask you a question?”

We sat on Jean’s front porch, and Sarah asked me: When did you learn he had autism? How do his brothers handle it? I noticed he likes to mow lawns—maybe he can mow mine sometime. We talked for an hour. I teared up, but I didn’t cry. A few other women stopped by on their way out and joined in—they all made me feel like a hero, not like the crazy Shumaker lady with the weird kid.

Once home, I collapsed on the couch, relieved and wrung out. It had been a healing morning. I was grateful for the way it turned out, even more grateful that it was over. It occurred to me that my neighbors were hungry for information, and that my appearance this morning was a bridge-builder. They had a clearer picture of me, and of Matthew. I was approachable now, and so were they.

The next day, I called Jean to thank her.

“You are so welcome. I was actually just about to call you. Matthew is standing in front of my house, and a police car just pulled up to talk to him. You might want to run down and see what’s going on.”

I ran down as fast as I could. Matthew and the officer were all smiles.

“Hi. I’m his mother,” I said breathlessly.

“Hello, I’m Officer Jones. Everything is fine. Matthew was just asking me if I take care of bad guys,” he said, winking.

He got it.

“Goodbye, Officer Jones,” said Matthew, grinning.

“Remember what I told you, Matthew,” said the officer, pulling away, “No more throwing rocks at cars, especially police cars!”

I was relieved that the police officer had been kind, but frustrated that Matthew’s negative method of making a connection had succeeded. Would he throw a rock again in an attempt to make a friend? I looked over and saw Jean standing on her porch.

“You OK?” she asked, and I just rolled my eyes. “Hang in there,” she said, her front door shutting behind her.

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.

Comments

  1. says

    I always love reading your posts… Since your son is older than mine, I always learn something from them. Matthew is so blessed to have you for his mother. :)

    One thing I’d like to share with others is how my husband, and I, have figured out how to keep our son from wandering away from home.

    Every door leading to the outside of our home has keyed locks on them, and the keys used to open them are kept under our control at all times. We have a key safe, with a combination lock on it, we put our keys in when we sleep. 

    Also, we are fortunate to have a completely fenced in backyard, with a high privacy fence, and both of the gates that it has have combination padlocks on them.

    I hope this will help keep someone else’s child safe. :)

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