The Babysitter

I needed babysitter for Saturday, and was at a loss.

At the time, my three boys were eight, six, and one and a half. Finding a sitter for three young children is not easy under the best of circumstances, but since our oldest Matthew, is autistic, finding help was a tremendous challenge.

Our usual choice was Rocky, the fourteen-year-old son of Matthew’s old preschool teacher. He was a great kid from a loving Mormon family who was too good to be true. He handled Matthew’s odd behavior with good humor, and was loved by all three of my boys. I knew that if he were in a pickle, he could call his mom for advice or rescue, but he never needed to. He often watched the boys at his house – a dream home with a trampoline and a game room filled with arcade games.

We had a company function to go to, and since Rocky wasn’t available, I thought I’d ask his mom, Laurie, if she knew anyone else who might be able to handle our quirky crew.

“I’ll ask Anna.”, she replied.

Anna was a friend of Laurie’s who had just moved from England to be a nanny for a family in our community. She had worked at a school back home for disabled children and was looking for work on her days off.

Jackpot.
I thanked Laurie, and assured her that Rocky would always be first choice. I phoned Anna, and explained our situation. She bubbled back with her amazing qualifications, including a special education teaching credential and CPR certification. She had decided to take a year off to be a nanny in the United States and was interested in finding babysitting jobs on the weekends. I immediately had fantasies of a weekend away, which we badly needed, while this perfect person took care of the kids.

Saturday arrived, and I was polishing the kitchen feverishly having spent a better part of the day cleaning the house to impress the English nanny when the doorbell rang.

“Anna! Come on in!” I chirped, knowing immediately that we had a problem here.

Anna stood before me with a big smile, beautiful blue eyes, dangly earrings and 100 extra pounds.

Matthew appeared in front of her, and got right down to business.

“How big are you?”

“Matthew!” I barked, horrified, but not surprised. Anna seemed unfazed.

“Hello, Matthew! I’m Anna! Would you like to show me your room?”

By now, Andy and John were standing behind me, looking worried, knowing what was to come.

“How big are you?” Matthew repeated. I was about to jump in again when Anna signaled to me that she could handle it.

“I am a bit chubby, I suppose.”

“How fat are you?” Matthew persisted.

Why didn’t Laurie tell me?

“In England, we call it chubby, so I guess you would say I’m quite chubby!”

“So”¦you’re big and fat.” Matthew concluded calmly.

My husband appeared, and introductions were made.

“I’m going to give Anna a little tour. Will you watch the boys?”Wide-eyed like the boys, Peter took them in the other room. As he walked away, Anna and I could hear Matthew say, “She must eat a lot of food.”

It was difficult to convey to Matthew that it is not kind to comment on peoples’ appearance. On trips to the grocery store, he spoke loudly and bluntly about shoppers around him. “He shouldn’t buy all those donuts” or “How black are those people?” One time, we were standing in line next to an attractive woman in her sixties. “She looks pretty old” Matthew announced. “Matthew!” I whispered hoarsely. “Well she does!” he insisted, “Just look at her skin!” The woman smiled at me, and said, “Well, at least he said pretty old, not really old!”

“I am so sorry.” I told Anna, wondering if I should call the whole thing off. The weekend getaway of my dreams would have to wait.

“Don’t worry! The little ones always comment on my size, but once they get over it, we have a jolly old time!”But I knew Matthew wouldn’t get over it, and that it was going to be a long day for poor Anna.

I had a hard time relaxing and getting in the spirit of the baby shower, and finally shared our story with a few of the guests, who laughed uproariously. It was 1996, and autism was still considered a rarity-tragic, yet exciting.
“When did you find out he was autistic?” one of them asked.

“I hear they’re brilliant”, said another.

“What will he be like when he’s a man?”

We snuck out of the shower early, and joked uneasily about what might be going on at home. I pretended to sleep during the hour drive, because the more I talked about how it might be going, the more anxious I became.

Anna looked ragged, and relieved to see us.

“How’d it go?” I asked cautiously.

“Anna ate pizza and ice cream”, Matthew reported.

I quickly ushered Anna out to her car and folded a big check into her hand.

“I don’t know how you do it!” she said.

I thanked her, and said I’d hope she would come again. What else was I going to say? He hadn’t meant to, but Matthew had hurt this woman, and I felt terrible. Now I would have to go in the house and have a talk with Matthew, try to explain once again”¦I could say,
“How would you feel if”¦” or simply say “Anna feels sad because you told her she was fat.” His reply would be, “But she is fat!” I should tell his therapist to work on this. Maybe we could figure something out.

And as Anna drove away, I thought, tears coming suddenly, how do I do it?

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.

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