San Francisco Chronicle
October 21, 2007
Link to original article
“I’m ready now.”I turned to look at my son Matthew, who is twenty-one and autistic. He stood in the doorway of the kitchen looking pleased with himself, wearing grass-stained socks and sandals and a clean striped shirt tucked into shorts cinched up high with a belt. His handsome face was clean, but there were several spots he had missed while shaving that morning. His sandy blonde hair was combed straight forward in a most unflattering Dumb and Dumber sort of way.
“All right,” I said, “just comb your hair to the side and do a quick shave and we’ll be on our way.”
If I could just dress Matthew myself he would look great, but I had to respect his desire to be treated like a regular 21 year old.
He had been working obsessively in the garden all morning, and I’d promised to take him to lunch at his favorite restaurant-a nearby ice cream parlor- as a reward.
When we pulled up to the restaurant, Matthew sprang out of the car and ran in, and I followed closely behind. It had been a while since we last visited the restaurant, and it appeared that the employees that we’d known before had moved on. The anxiety of being unknown and of having to explain Matthew’s disability filled me with dread.
Before the waitress could seat us, Matthew rushed over to a table decorated with balloons. A group of 11 or 12 year old girls, all grasping long handled spoons, gathered around the parlor’s signature watermelon-sized ice cream sundae.
“Whose birthday is it?” Matthew asked excitedly as I hovered warily behind him.
“Mine,” said the young girl at the head of the table, raising her hand timidly. Her mother, sitting at the other end of the table, looked nervous, and the manager appeared in a flash.
It was obvious what the mother and the manager were thinking. My odd looking son must be some kind of pervert, a pedophile like those on the TV show To Catch a Predator. I tried to understand their perspective; I’d probably react the same way if I had daughters of my own. I stepped closer to make it apparent that Matthew was closely supervised.
“Happy Birthday!” Matthew said with a goofy grin, “How old are you?”
Before the birthday girl could answer, the manager stepped in front of him.
“Please take your seat,” she said sternly, pointing at a booth around the corner.
“I’ve got him,” I said, my heart pounding. “We’re together.”
Mercifully, Matthew cooperated and seemed oblivious to the sudden tension in the restaurant and the stares he was drawing. I wanted to leave, but knew Matthew wouldn’t understand why, so we stayed.
The waitress, who had picked up the negative vibe, scribbled down Matthew’s order – the tuna melt and the hot fudge sundae with extra cherries- avoiding eye contact.
“Just water for me,” I said cheerfully for my son’s sake.
After ordering, Matthew got up to wash his hands, but when he walked past the birthday party toward the bathroom, the manager stepped in front of him again.
“Sit down”, she ordered, and I popped up.
“He just wants to wash his hands,” I said under my breath. “Is there a problem?”
“My customer does not want him interacting with the children. He’ll have to wait till they leave.”
“I’ll stand by the door,” I said quietly, “and there’ll be no interacting.” I could have stomped my foot and told this woman where to go, but cool and calm was needed to clear the air.
“Thank you,” she said, and the mother led the children out of the restaurant while Matthew washed his hands, leaving me with a heavy feeling in my chest. When we sat down again, Matthew asked why the manager was so “strict”.
“I was being nice,” he said.
“Remember how I always told you not to talk to strangers when you were little?” I said. “You were a stranger to those girls, so the mother and the manager got nervous”.
There was so much more to say, and I needed to think long and hard about how to say it.
How could I explain this emotionally charged and complex side of life in simple language that my socially inept son could understand? How could I find the right words that would prepare him for the next social crisis?
When Matthew finished his lunch, he got up to wash his hands again and I cringed as he completed his restaurant ritual of tracking down and thanking the waitress. I watched as the two exchanged a few words, then Matthew turned around and laughed while the waitress smiled slightly and shook her head.
“What did you say, Matthew?” I asked as we drove home.
“I told her I was pretty strict, too”, he said with his crazy grin, “and she could not wash her hands.”
I couldn’t help but admire Matthew. He may not have been known when he walked into the restaurant, but he sure was now.
Read the first three chapters of Laura’s book REGULAR GUY: GROWING UP WITH AUTISM here.