Susan's Blog

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Helping Nat Register to Vote

I had an oped in today’s Washington Post, about helping Nat register to vote. You can read it here.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Parents Magazine Dives Into Autism Adulthood

This article from Parents Magazine uses some of the research I did on autism adulthood statistics (costs, limited resources, day program/Medicaid info) as well as a brief Nat story and reference to my book. Keep in mind this is a mainstream media venue, serving people who generally know very little about autism, especially in terms of adulthood issues. Parents wanted it to be a call to arms, so its tone is a bit panicky. Still, I believe we need to shock the world into caring and doing something for our guys in adulthood.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Library Journal: Thumbs Up

Library Journal highly recommends my book!

Susan Senator (Making Peace with Autism) hits the nail on the head once again with this work that shares her continuing journey as the parent of an adult with autism. Parents often worry about who will care for their children should they no longer be able, but that concern lessens once children are grown and out on their own. Parents of children with autism, however, must address their fears and seek answers to such a scenario before and into their child’s adulthood. Senator tells her experience helping her son, Nat, find a living situation that will support his needs and allow him to be a part of the community. She also relates stories of 30 other families, and the solutions they have found for their children with autism. By explaining how she and others in similar situations manage on a daily basis, the author encourages parents to seek new resolutions in addition to available options for their child. Lists of resources and planning ideas are included. ­

VERDICT: Straightforward and to the point, Senator’s book addresses many parents’ worst fears and inspires them to step up and create a situation and a community that can ­support their child in their absence. This is a must-read for any parent with a child on the autism spectrum as well as care­givers, siblings, and extended family. Suitable for any library with parenting and autism collections.—Lisa Jordan, ­Johnson Cty. Lib., Overland Park, KS

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Publicity Material–Please Forward


CONTACT: Ashley Vanicek

(212) 643-6816 x 288

“In this book, like her others, the wonderful Susan Senator gives voice to those who are too often voiceless—folks with ASD who seek what they deserve—lives of purpose and possibilities.” —Ron Suskind, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and bestselling author of Life Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism.

Autism Adulthood:  Strategies and Insights for a Fulfilling Life

 By Susan Senator

Foreword by John Elder Robison — author of Look Me In The Eye, (Crown, 2007) and the newly published Switched On, a Memoir of Brain Change and Emotional Awakening, (Spiegel & Grau, March 2016)

“In her frank and deeply touching new book Autism Adulthood, Susan Senator shares the intimate details of her journey with her son, Nat, as he takes his first steps toward maturity in a society that offers few resources for people on the spectrum after they “age out” of the meager level of services provided to school-age children. She faces the big issues – housing, employment, relationships with siblings, finding trustworthy caregivers – head-on, and offers practical strategies for giving young autistic people the best chance to lead happy, safe, and secure lives, mapping a pathway to the future that offers autistic people and their families real hope, rather than false hopes built on misguided promises of a cure. By doing so she offers a blueprint for a world in which people at every point on the spectrum are treated as fellow citizens who deserve respect and the ability to make choices, rather than as puzzles to be solved by the next medical breakthrough.” —Steve Silberman, author of NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity

“As an emotional resource, Senator’s book is excellent.” —Kirkus

“Mothers, fathers, and siblings should read this honest account of family life with autism.” —Temple Grandin, PhD, author of Thinking in Pictures and Emergence: Labeled Autistic for Making Peace with Autism

“From the introduction, Autism Adulthood: Strategies and Insights for a Fulfilling Life will bring you to that dark place parents of young adults with autism fear. But just as quickly, Susan offers practical advice through story-telling and concise, how-to strategies that will leave you feeling optimistic, hopeful, and back in control—all any of us can ask for. A thoroughly readable and important book.” —Arthur Fleischmann, author of Carly’s Voice: Breaking Through Autism

“A brilliant book.” —Tim Shriver, CEO of the Special Olympics, for The Autism Mom’s Survival Guide

Autism Adulthood is a book I will be recommending to every autism parent I know. Senator is as warm as she is wise, as thoughtful as she is knowledgeable, as compassionate as she is informative. Her rallying cry of “All we can do is love each other” will resound in any parent’s heart. Senator loves fiercely—which means she does everything she can to ensure the best life and future for her adult child with autism. This book will inspire the rest of us to do the same for ours.” —Claire LaZebnik, coauthor of Overcoming Autism, with Dr. Lynn Kern Koegel

Autism. It’s a scary word to some, and one that parents are hearing more and more. Beyond the trauma of the initial diagnosis, the difficulties with finding the right schools and educational programs, and the toll it takes on the whole family looms something far more uncertain and terrifying:

What will happen when my child grows up?

In her new book Autism Adulthood: Strategies and Insights for a Fulfilling Life (Skyhorse Publishing, April 2016), Susan Senator takes the mystery out of adult life on the autism spectrum and conveys the positive message that even though autism adulthood is complicated and challenging, there are many ways to make it manageable and enjoyable. From her own son with autism, now in his twenties, she has learned to “never say never.”

Autism Adulthood features thirty interviews with autistic adults, their parents, caregivers, researchers, and professionals. Each vignette reveals firsthand a family’s challenge, their circumstances, their thought processes, and their unique solutions and plans of action. Sharing the wisdom that emerges from parents’ and self-advocates’ experiences, Senator adds her own observations and conclusions based on her long-term experience with autism. Told in Senator’s trademark warm, honest, and approachable style, Autism Adulthood paints a vivid and thought-provoking picture of many people grappling with grown-up, real-life autism. Senator’s is the only book of its kind, as real families share their stories and their creative solutions.

About the Author

Susan Senator is a writer, an activist, and the mother of three boys. Her books include Making Peace with Autism and The Autism Mom’s Survival Guide. Her son Nat, now in his twenties was diagnosed with autism at the age of three, and she has been advocating for people with autism ever since. She lives in Brookline, Massachusetts.


To request an excerptor to arrange an interview with the author, please contact:

Ashley Vanicek / (212) 643-6816 x 288 /


Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.

307 West 36th Street, 11th Floor

New York, NY 10018

(212) 643-6816




Autism Adulthood

Strategies and Insights for a Fulfilling Life

By Susan Senator, Foreword by John Elder Robison

Skyhorse Publishing hardcover, also available as an ebook

On Sale: April 26, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-5107-0423-7

Price: $26.99

320 pages

Friday, March 4, 2016

Book Excerpt: People First Or Autism Pride?

People First or Autism Pride?

You will find in reading this book that I interchange the terms “people with autism,” with “autistic people.” I am well aware of and respect the People First movement—the widespread effort to avoid defining someone by their disability (as in the latter example). A few of the people I interviewed specified that they preferred People First language, and I made sure I wrote their section with that in mind. However, I also know of many people on the autism spectrum who prefer being referred to as “autistic.” This group feels that they are indeed defined by their autism, that their personality is wrapped inextricably in autism, and, fur­thermore, that this is a point of pride. Hence, my solution is to use both terms interchangeably, because I see the value in both philosophies.

No doubt people will also note that I do not use the term “autism spectrum” too often, nor do I specifically distinguish between descriptions like high functioning, low functioning, Aspie, Aspergian, Aspergerian, pervasive developmental dis­ordered, ASD (autism spectrum disorder), and just plain old autism. This is because the current DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual Volume Five) has eliminated many such divi­sions on the autism spectrum, focusing instead on descriptive designations, and on determining possible features of autism (e.g., social, communicative, behavioral, sensory, or intellectual deficits) rather than labeling kinds of autism. Though there has been much discord among the medical, psychological, and autism communities about these changes in the DSM; many agree that terms such “high-functioning” or “low-functioning” autism are definitely outmoded, as they sprung from verbal competence or lack thereof. We now know that a person can be without verbal speech and still have the ability to express himself successfully. Likewise, someone with verbal speech and a very high IQ might be completely debilitated by depression or social, sensory, or behavioral challenges. So I, too, will stick to descriptions of skills and challenges to give you the full human picture of my subjects.

Speaking of the full human picture . . .

In my narrative, I try to avoid describing an autistic person’s unusual actions as “behaviors,” “stims,” or “stereotypies.” To me, these terms are used negatively to signal the need to control or eliminate the behavior or activity, and I believe for the most part that autistic people need to act the way they act. This includes talking to oneself, flapping, pacing, thumb-sucking—all the things my Nat does with autistic exuberance. I’ve learned from Nat and from more communicative adults with autism that it’s “better flappy than unhappy.”

Thursday, March 3, 2016

My Son, The Athlete

Here is something I wrote for, about one of my favorite organizations, Special Olympics, and one of my favorite people: Nat.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Autism Adulth Healthcare Needs Serious Repair

How can we do a better job by our communicationally-challenged citizens, children, neighbors? As we become more and more of an inclusive society and we really start to see all the autistic people among us, we are going to have to do better by them in terms of understanding, connecting, engaging. In my case, I needed to be able to read Nat and get him to tell me what was wrong. This piece of mine — an excerpt from the forthcoming book on Autism Adulthood — came out today on WBUR/Boston’s NPR affiliate.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Autism Adulthood, First Excerpt: Chapter One

The first clear memory I have of actually working on Nat’s adulthood was probably toward the end of 2007, when he was seventeen. I was sitting inside a stream of weak sunlight, in the playroom where I keep all my files. The usual dust powdered the reddish-brown floorboards and the windowsills. Folders were spread out on my lap and on the gold carpet under my folded knees. I was looking through papers—reports and dog-eared, hastily-scribbled notes I’d taken at some seminar or other for parents. Brochures spilled out, unopened, glossy, packed with jargoned paragraphs intended to give me hope. The letters were small and black, and they didn’t really say anything. “We’re here for you.” Or, “We’ve provided services for people with intellec­tual disabilities and their families for decades.” Or, “Our adult residences offer professional, loving care for your loved one.”

I was searching for a list, a phone number. My fingers shuf­fled through the papers like little Flintstone feet, trying to get that big stone car moving. I felt inexplicably tired. That guy . . . that person who’d called me a year or so back, about Nat’s respite funding, from the Department of Mental Retardation, as it was called then. What was his name? David something? I closed the folder and sat back on the rug and sighed.

Okay, don’t just give up now; you have to do this, I told myself. So where do I begin?

The school hadn’t told me anything about whom to call, what to see. Okay, I thought. What am I looking for in terms of Nat’s future? It can’t be that complicated, can it? He will need to live somewhere. Who helps with that? How do you get the money for it? Agencies, vendors. Which is which? My heart was speeding up again. Deep breath.

Okay. The phone book. The blue government pages. I hefted the White Pages from its dusty shelf, onto my lap and found the listings, the blue pages. A memory flickered: the government departments were called agencies. Our agency was the Department of Developmental Services, DDS, (formerly the Department of Mental Retardation, DMR). The vendors were the people who provided the actual services used—such as job coaches, transportation to the workplace from the day program, feeding and toileting assistance. Vendors are mostly private nonprofits that specialized in disability services. I breathed a sigh of relief, having solved one tiny piece of the impossible puzzle ahead of me. I found some phone numbers. I called the DDS and I talked to a woman about what I was looking for: “Well, my son is seventeen, he’s still in school, but I know I’m supposed to start planning for where he’ll live after he is done with school, so I’m calling to find out what I should do next.”

There was a pause. I think the woman actually chuckled. “He’s only seventeen? Oh, you have time.” I could feel her atten­tion receding from me. Wait! Come back! What should I do? Isn’t there something I’m supposed to do now?

But she was not interested in my son or me. We exchanged one or two more pleasantries and I hung up and put the folders away for the right time. But I knew, in my heavy heart, that she was wrong. The time was now.

Copyright © 2016 by Susan Senator
Foreword copyright © 2016 by John Elder Robison
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner without the express written consent of the publisher, except in the case of brief excerpts in critical reviews or articles. All inquiries should be addressed to Skyhorse Publishing, 307 West 36th Street, 11th Floor, New York, NY 10018.



Saturday, January 23, 2016

Island in the Storm

Late January is a very still moment in the year, even when there’s a gusty storm outside. The world might be going to hell in a handbasket –  but there are some things that will never change: the way we want to hibernate, and turn inward during the dark winter.

My husband, however, fights this. Armed with lists on index cards, his laptop, and decaf, Ned remains full of purpose even as the wind rages against our windows. He always has a project going — most often it involves writing code or helping others fix bugs in their software, online. Even though he is sitting down, he is never still: he drums his fingers when they’re not typing, and he hums when he pauses to think.

When he’s had enough of his digital world, he looks around for our sons to see what they’re up to.  Natty is content with winter inactivity like me. In the normal weather the rest of the year, he and Ned will take long walks downtown. But in the deep winter, Nat will be on a couch under the pilled blue blanket, or burrito’ed in his own bed most weekend afternoons.

Ned lets Nat be on these January Saturday afternoons because they’ve already done a lot: Special Olympics basketball for two hours in the morning — I’d say Nat earns his nap. Ned, too, has earned a nap because a lot of that time in the gym he was barking orders at Nat — and others on the team. Ned’s never been a Special Olympics coach but he acts like one. He never misses a practice, and he stands on the court during their games. Well, often, too, he is typing at his laptop in the bleachers, but he’ll always have an ear out for what’s going on — especially if Nat is slacking off. “Nat why are you standing way out there? Get over with the team!” he’ll yell.

Once we’re home, Ned will turn to our other son, Ben. Ned won’t say this but he longs for the days when the boys really wanted to spend time with him. This is not a Cats-in-the-Cradle type of regret; he played with them all the time back then. It’s more that it is hard for him to stand inside this new phase in our lives. It seems like the one easy thing he can do with Ben right now is drive with him. Ben is seventeen so even this is a struggle, even though it is clearly in his interest to get his license. But one of the items Ned keeps in his list is getting Ben to practice driving. Needless to say, Ben has improved very fast.

Sometimes I despair over Ned’s regimented routines. I pout like a child wondering where on the index cards am I? But the thing is, I know I can get his attention anytime I want. If I told him I needed him to snuggle me right now, he would. If I told him I want him to come home from work early, he probably will. But I want to be barked at, too, sometimes. I want him to say, “Susie, what are you thinking of doing now?” Sometimes he does that, to be fair, but most of the time, we are orbiting each other, coming together for our coffee and our tv show. And bedtime. I feel, though, like I am the one who keeps track of the life of our marriage, and keeps count of when the last take-out occurred, when was the most recent dinner out, or how’s the sex been lately. I have never been able to guess what he’s thinking, or predict when he’s going to turn his love my way, but as the Allmans say, “Lord you know it makes me high” when he does.

I can get his attention, but I don’t try that much, at least, I don’t overdo it. On these cold days I find I’m craving my own company, baking or something like that. I try to get Nat to do this with me, especially when I’m baking cookies. Ben rarely spends time downstairs with the three of us; he’s in his ginger-candle-scented room cave, either “arting” or texting, snapchatting, whatever-ing friends. I’m comfortable with Ben’s independence, for the most part. It feels like it’s supposed to be that way. But I probably wouldn’t be this okay with that if he didn’t also just come over to me sometimes and show me something amazing on the computer.

Lately I couldn’t stand the cold that comes through our old window sashes — you can feel the breeze just standing near them. So I went around the house with old scarves of mine and stuffed them into all the window gaps. Weird that I did it, rather than Ned. There are some things that are just not on his list. I don’t mind. Now there are splashes of fuschia and jade poking out from curtains. I know that this kind of thing I do charms Ned. He’d never think to use beautiful scarves as a cold buffer.

We’re so different. He’s Nordic snowy silver and I’m Mediterranean terra cotta. I bake bread and splash stories on the screen while he types green on black. I’m impulse, he’s lists. I guess I’m his heat. And he is my shelter, he shapes me, he is clear thought and purpose. He’s the reason I can stay put, inside, and it’s okay.




Wednesday, January 20, 2016

When Autism Campaigns Become Camp Pains

Any social movement ultimately opens up to new discourse, different points of view. Autism is no exception. We’ve had the anti-vaccine groups vs. the medical/pharmaceutical/scientific institutions. We’ve had identity-first vs. person-first debate. We’ve had the Autism Speaks Awareness campaigns vs. the ASAN (Autistic Self-Advocacy Network) nothing-about-us-without-us/acceptance, not awareness, campaigns. And I believe each stage in the modern history of autism (starting in 1981, when Lorna Wing discovered Hans Asperger’s work and came up with the term Autism Spectrum Disorder), is important and must be faced courageously and thoughtfully. Wing’s contribution ultimately broadened the diagnosis to include many many people who — Steven Silberman points out — were otherwise marginalized in institutions as psychotic or intellectually disabled or criminal; or marginalized as weird, odd, crazy, nerdy, unlovable.

As ugly as these rifts have become, each phase, is important in the progression of autism as an important social movement.

The current rift is a new iteration of the AS-Self-Advocates division. The rift began with AS (Autism Speaks) using stories of suffering on the part of autism families to raise mainstream awareness of what families need.  The tension came from the AS emphasis on Autism-As-Child-Kidnapper. The positive sides of autism were not a factor, the idea of autism as identity was not actually known. I believe that Autism Speaks acted in the best interests of the cause of putting autism on the map. No one — other than autistics themselves, autism families, a handful of researchers — was thinking about autism, period, before AS came along with its empty stroller ads or Autism Everyday video. I give AS the benefit of the doubt, considering the pervasive view then, the ends-justify-the-means battle mode.

Before long, self-advocates who could communicate protested this attitude, rightly so, because it is potentially damaging to autistic people. The AS-type of autism hatred was a direct attack on who the autistic self-advocates were. This makes sense: if you harp on extreme and negative conditions of a disorder, then all people will want to do is eradicate it like cancer. And for a small, damaged minority, this view may translate to justifying violence towards autistic people (never ever justified.) Or, much more likely, for well-intentioned but misguided parents, questionable or even harmful, unscientific “cures” or treatments, like the use of chelation (which killed one child), or giving a child bleach enemas, or the drug Lupron that staves off physical development in the child.

These are horrible approaches, unjustifiable. But let me ask a question, without condoning anything harmful to a child:  Might there indeed be something environmental harming our children? This is a question worth asking, and it is a thread that runs through the anti-vax, anti-autism groups. That, plus the GI connection to some autistic-like symptoms — these came in part from the anti-autism group. Formerly discredited, now many doctors urge looking at intestinal issues and physical causes for behavior problems. Furthermore, there are immune-compromised children who cannot be vaccinated but should not be ostracized for their decision.

The new issue is a further evolution, and the term “Inspiration Porn” sums it up. We now have autistics who can communicate decrying the parent bloggers who appropriate their autistic child’s life story and use it as a way to promote themselves, or to get sympathy from other parents and groups. I’ve read tweets that express outrage at the pain parents describe of dealing with autism. The mostly legitimate fears for the parents’ own children get translated to callous, clueless unjustified whining.

This is a bloody split, because it gets right to people’s hearts. If you have a child  — or an adult loved one with autism who cannot communicate, is self-injurious, acts out, destroys things, runs away — you may have a very difficult time even believing that the self-advocates understand your child’s — and your — struggles. And the name-calling, the put-down of “Inspiration Porn” doesn’t help. The challenging behaviors and episodes are very real. Yet they are not the whole picture of autism by any stretch. And yet again they may be a very large picture of some families’ lives. Mine included, at several points. No, we don’t want society thinking Autism = Violent People. But we do want help for those families who are living with it. Yes. We. Do. We just need to find balance in how we talk about it.

There are self-advocates, too, who explain much more fairly and accurately the harms of ableism, like this one. I’ve learned about ableism and the ways I’m likely guilty of it, from the self-advocates like this one and from ASAN. I’ve asked myself what I should do to change, if indeed I am guilty of Inspiration Porn myself. The ableists see everything through the Poor Autistic filter. They want to force the mainstream, the neuro-typical. They see autism as inferior to non-autism.  Hugely important for society to see this, the wrong of it, the harm, the psychological fascism involved.

And so: there are no definitive answers here. I understand all the sides. I have friends in all camps. I’ve also seen my Nat evolve and my own perceptions of him have radically changed over the years. I also believe that things are not clearly sides at all, that this is one big Spectrum spectrum. There are grays here. There is an entire rainbow of viewpoints. The non-negotiables, of course, is inflicting harm on others. Or using your child without considering his/her feelings about what you write. Or vicious attacks on honest, worthy, awareness-raising posts. Each part has for better or worse contributed to putting autism on the public’s radar. Each group can and should learn from the other.  Let’s hope that that radar remains focused on resources and accommodations and scientific research that helps autistics realize their potential, and helps families connect with — and help, yes, help — their differently-wired loved ones.  Only with balance, bona fide science, courageous open-mindedness, and compassion for all of us will we move forward, faction-free.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Exclusion and Inclusion

It was the best of days, it was the worst of days.

An unexpected “no” to Nat came last week from Jewish Big Brother Big Sister. He had been deemed inappropriate for their friend-to-friend program. I didn’t know what to make of it at first. All I was capable of for that day was a choking rage and Facebook posts in all caps.

We’d gone to the interview a month or two ago — Nat, Ned and I — feeling like it was just a formality. My feeling is, to meet Nat is to love him. He has a sudden surprising all-out smile, and his lids draw down, and he loses himself in his own joy. There’s a brief, lucky moment when his Caribbean eyes meet yours, and let you in on it. And at this particular intake interview, Nat was really on top of his game — at his most compelling. He was so attentive, so obviously trying to follow the conversation. So happy. We had told him that we were talking to this woman because she ran a new social group. Nat loves social groups, he loves going out with people, anywhere, everywhere.

I was pleased with the way the caseworker interviewing him addressed her questions to Nat, not to us. Then Ned or I could support Nat’s answers, reframe the question for him, or whatever he might need to answer. This kind of conversation is a challenge for Nat because there are no parameters, and he really feels the most comfortable with familiar topics and clear choices for answers. Still, he was able to pull words out of air and answer sometimes. We filled in what he could not.

I was so proud of him during the intake that I’m sure my cheeks were red and hot. Afterwords, I was giddy like a girl. The caseworker was so friendly and seemed to say that of course this would work, that they have clients with all sorts of disabilities.

But I had it wrong. Her letter read: “I’m sorry to have to deliver disappointing news.  Numerous factors are taken into consideration as we review each individual’s eligibility.  Our main concerns are related to Nat’s safety in public and his limited communication/conversational skills.  The volunteers we engage are not expected to have, and most often don’t have, any experience working with people with disabilities.  We believe to accept Nat would be unfair as it is highly unlikely we could find a right match and would therefore create a frustrating experience for both him and you.

One friend offered to file a complaint — she’s a dynamo attorney. I didn’t want to go that route, at least, not right then. I wanted to understand the issue and figure out if they were at all right to turn Nat away. I was trying to be fair. But the way my hands were shaking and my throat felt like yelling, I think I already knew that they were wrong. You can’t call yourself an organization whose mission is “We introduce adults with disabilities to new friends in their communities.”

At JBBBS, we help to connect children in need to adult mentors, and we introduce adults who have disabilities to new friends in their communities.

In this way, and in the spirit of chazak v’nithazaik (strengthening one another), we seek to support and empower individuals and families to engage, to participate actively in the life of their communities, to live inspired and to inspire others that none may be lost to us.

- See more at:

And then you tell someone that he is, basically, too disabled for them. They don’t have any experience working with people with disabilities, she said. Really? No volunteers there can be taught how to communicate with Nat, how to connect with him and go for walks, movies, out to dinner…? No volunteers there have loved ones or friends with communication limitations? So what, exactly, does the disability part of their mission mean?

Was this even a legal response? Not if this group takes public funds. The ADA is clear on that.

The very next day, I got an email from Nat’s music teacher — he’s recently joined a group that practices together as a band but still has a lot of one-on-one instruction. Elaine, the teacher, talked about how the group was growing and soon we would need to divide into two bands. Immediately I went into defensive mode, because of what has just happened with Jewish Big Brother Big Sister. I cried to Ned, to my mom, and to my laptop, that I just knew that the decision to divide the groups was code for “put Nat in a less advanced group, he’s slowing everyone down.”

I talked to my mom, who was adamant that I not let this be, that I make sure the teacher knew how I felt about this kind of thing.

I am so damned tired of the way people rank other people, and find ways to close off their little groups.

I must also point out that I did not know if Nat himself would mind such a grouping. I did not think he would understand this kind of winnowing out, or if he basically just wanted to hang out with these guys, doing whatever.

I sent Elaine an email, asking politely if she was dividing the group by ability and planning on putting Nat in a slower group. I told her that I hoped not, because he’d had a lifetime of this.

Elaine wrote back quickly: Thanks for emailing me about this. Nat is doing fantastic in the group, and is our one and only student drummer right now! He has actually improved on the drums so much that we were all talking about his progress last night after group ended. He spoke up while we were picking out which song to play next, and requested we play Build Me Up Buttercup. He seems much more comfortable now that he has attended for several weeks.

Nat is a drummer! I could barely hold on to my heart, floating away like a big red balloon.

That is how it should be.

Folks, we all march to our own drummer. Nat is no exception. I’d advise Jewish Big Brother Big Sister to get with the beat – or beat it.



At JBBBS, we help to connect children in need to adult mentors, and we introduce adults who have disabilities to new friends in their communities. – See more at:

At JBBBS, we help to connect children in need to adult mentors, and we introduce adults who have disabilities to new friends in their communities.

In this way, and in the spirit of chazak v’nithazaik (strengthening one another), we seek to support and empower individuals and families to engage, to participate actively in the life of their communities, to live inspired and to inspire others that none may be lost to us.

- See more at:

At JBBBS, we help to connect children in need to adult mentors, and we introduce adults who have disabilities to new friends in their communities.

In this way, and in the spirit of chazak v’nithazaik (strengthening one another), we seek to support and empower individuals and families to engage, to participate actively in the life of their communities, to live inspired and to inspire others that none may be lost to us.

- See more at:

At JBBBS, we help to connect children in need to adult mentors, and we introduce adults who have disabilities to new friends in their communities.

In this way, and in the spirit of chazak v’nithazaik (strengthening one another), we seek to support and empower individuals and families to engage, to participate actively in the life of their communities, to live inspired and to inspire others that none may be lost to us.

- See more at:

At JBBBS, we help to connect children in need to adult mentors, and we introduce adults who have disabilities to new friends in their communities.

In this way, and in the spirit of chazak v’nithazaik (strengthening one another), we seek to support and empower individuals and families to engage, to participate actively in the life of their communities, to live inspired and to inspire others that none may be lost to us.

- See more at:

At JBBBS, we help to connect children in need to adult mentors, and we introduce adults who have disabilities to new friends in their communities.

In this way, and in the spirit of chazak v’nithazaik (strengthening one another), we seek to support and empower individuals and families to engage, to participate actively in the life of their communities, to live inspired and to inspire others that none may be lost to us.

- See more at:

At JBBBS, we help to connect children in need to adult mentors, and we introduce adults who have disabilities to new friends in their communities. – See more at:
Thursday, January 14, 2016

A Downer, But Honest

I wrote this two years ago.

I’ve been wondering lately if I can become a ghost after I die. I am not looking to die — not at all. It’s just that I have a severely autistic son who is 24 and I can’t imagine how anyone will look out for him the way I do. Even though Nat has two brothers, who are lovely young men — but at 16 and 22, they have begun to grow their own lives. I know they will be there for him in one way or another, but still, it is not the same. I am going to have to depend on the kindness of strangers.

Over the years, I have had to let go of Nat in one way or another. The first day of preschool I sent his father to go with him. I’m ashamed to say, I just could not go. The break had to be clean for both of us. It was anything but. My husband spent the morning out in the hallway, listening to him cry for us, wondering how to help him get through it, knowing that he could not go in. It’s hard enough explaining to a typically-developing child why he has to go to school, but how would we get Nat to understand? It felt like abandonment to me.  I don’t even remember how I spent my day — it is lost to me, as so many of my days felt at that time. I even remember feeling like a ghost when I returned with him soon after this, to our playground, hollow inside, watching the other moms and their perfect kids.

He got used to school, of course, and so did we. But the fear, irrational perhaps, was still there, its clammy breath at my back. I don’t even really know why I was so afraid, but I think it had to do with not knowing how he felt about it. My question — unanswered — is always, “how much of his life does he understand?” If one has such little language, such a choppy processing ability, how can we know what he knows? It is all so raw, a cut inside that just doesn’t heal. I grieve even now that he’s 24, because the limitations and the sense that I have somehow abandoned him never quite go away. I don’t mean to sound entirely gloomy, it’s not like that, either. Nat has brought me some of my life’s deepest joys. His first sentences, first friendships, first job — all of these milestones have been infinitely sweeter because of the long wait, the hope growing cold.

I felt a similar lacerating pain when Nat had to move out, to live at his school. He was nearly 18 then, and people tried to comfort me by saying that it was normal for kids to move out of their parents’ homes at 18. But I was just so ripped up at that point that their logical words just seeped right out of me. Just like when he was three, and off to school for the first time, he had to go. Living with him was threatening to destroy our family. We could not manage his anxiety and he became frighteningly aggressive and out of control with us at times — once, he attacked me at the subway platform and another time he broke a window with his head. But my bond with him never broke. Even when I was scared of him, and terrified for him, I always knew him, I always felt the soul inside. But clearly he needed to live with more structure, with trained people who understood how to help him calm down. But I was sick about it, for nearly a year, crying bitterly every Sunday when we dropped him off again — even though he was improving. I was sure that I’d failed him.

So how can I get my head around planning for my ultimate departure? There is no state mechanism set up to help parents like me, no bank of trustworthy mothers who would take my place. I hear that the state “takes over” if there is no place for the disabled adult to live, but what is that like? I can’t leave Nat’s life to chance. And how does this work for the thousands of others in my position? It is probably somewhat like taking over for aging, ill parents. Except that is kind of a normal stage in life. There has never been anything normal about the way I have had to parent my son. My connection with him, though strong, has always been amorphous, spiritual, heart-to-heart. Our relationship is always present tense, it resides in being with each other, breathing the same air together. But when I’m dead, that connection will be severed. He won’t be able to know me anymore; we won’t be on the other side of the door, or here for him on weekends. Perhaps the most horrible thing about that, my deepest, bottomless fear, is that in being dead, I won’t even be able to care.


Monday, January 11, 2016

Not Perfect, But Very Good

Last Saturday night I did not want to cook. I had been good all week, making stupid boring dinner every single day — well not Tuesday, okay, pizza (salad for me) — but I was just lusting for dinner out. Dieting all day. All week. All year. We settled on Cheesecake Factory, can’t be too fancy with Ben and Nat. Cheesecake Factory is middle ground. Large, comfortable seats, fairly interesting psuedo-Egyptian-Southwestern theme going on. No weird smells, food’s always good.

We got there and it was a 50 minute wait that became an hour. We were so hungry, and standing around the mall with the vibrating alarm in hand, waiting for it to come to life. Everyone else hanging around was waiting, too. It was weird — they were all so friendly, and relaxed, and so were we. One family was taking up most of the seating but my knee was killing me, and when the dad got up, I sat down, smiling and apologizing. No problem. Then an old man with a cane came over and I got up. “You sure, Dear?” he asked. So sweet.

By the time we sat down, Weight Watchers had become Wait Watchout in my head. I did not care. I ate and ate. Nothing was bothering me. Ben was happy. Nat was into it. He looked at the menu and said, “Pasta.” As soon as the waitress came over and asked about drinks, he said, “Sprite.” It was just perfect.

We even had a shared enemy — the woman behind us. She was puffed up with Restylane, and her entitled teenage girls were brats, off shopping while their dinner was coming. Who cares, really, but it gave us something to laugh about. The girls even lost the mom’s charge card. “I don’t know!” they screamed. “Well go back and retrace your steps!” the mom yelled, exasperated. We just kept smiling smugly at each other. My boys are so great, I thought. They never shop. Ha ha. Just me.

It was nice to be Mrs. Obnoxious with my grown-up, well-behaved sons. It’s unusual. Often I envy the other tables, families with three little girls, for God’s sake. No, I don’t want girls but they just look so pretty and perfect. My boys are scruffy, big men. Gloriously male. But jeez, how did I get so old?

Well, perfection is only a dream. The false note came when Nat wanted another Sprite and Ned countermanded it. He interrupted and told the waitress no, treating Nat like a child. Okay, Ned is his father and does have to protect Nat to keep him healthy, but still — Nat is 26. I whispered to Ned: “Next time talk to Nat about how it’s probably too much sugar, suggest water, rather than speaking for him.” Ned nodded. “He’s a man, after all,” I said. “You wouldn’t do that to Max.” Inside I burned for Nat being patronized, even by his loving father.

Later that night I had a dream that Ned was making Nat eat a potato, uncooked. I told Ned the next morning and said that I didn’t like how the Sprite incident had gone, and the dream was about that.

The sad thing or maybe the happy thing is that Nat moves on. Is it because he’s used to being told what to do, or is it because he’s not oversensitive like me?

Well, there’s always a spot that mars the perfect surface in this life. So sometimes you just have to fix the hurts with treats. That’s what I do. Food = love in my sweet family. And when it came time for dessert, I insisted we get the Chocolate Tower Truffle Cake and a coconut chocolate cheesecake, dammit. Forkful after forkful of the creamy sweetness, your teeth sink in just right. Let it spread like frosting over your dear heart, my Nat. And Ned, who probably felt bad about what he’d done.

I didn’t even feel sick after. It was just enough — too much is always enough.

I don’t know, the outing was just so unexpected. Usually Ben doesn’t want to go, Nat is sloppy and eats too fast. Ned gets grumpy waiting for the check. I get stressed out about which is the least fattening entree. I then order the wrong thing.

Not this time. We just went in as ourselves — and it was as (almost) as smooth as that cake.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Don’t Lean In, Reach Up

Tolstoy did not say, “All happy parents are alike. All unhappy parents are unhappy in their own way.” But if he had known the autism parents I know, he might have.  I believe that this unhappiness is not a bad thing, either, because it is the energy that fuels the changes in their situation — and then, the creativity. I have not done a formal study of this, I’m not a social scientist, but I have written a book and interviewed many autism parents. And I have observed, by and large, that it is the desperate autism parent that can be the most effective autism parent. Of course this is likely true for any disability. The Down Syndrome families, the CP families, they are no shrinking violets. But autism is the disability I know, and that is the disability I write about.

Let me reframe a bit by changing the designation “unhappy.” Disability does not equal unhappy, no way. But there are many autism families and autistics themselves who want something different, who want productive lives. The model available to guys like my son Nat, who is autistic and communicates outwardly only sometimes — he doesn’t care for that kind of activity, he prefers his own thoughts as well as direct physical movement — the day time models are largely adult babysitting. This is because the funding comes from Medicaid, who is like your sweet generous grandma, chock full of desire to give and help, but limited by her anachronistic knowledge of the world. My Grandma Esther Senator Gross, God bless her, with her ubiquitous huge white leather gold studded purse, full of her good silverware (“it shouldn’t get stolen when I’m away”), chocolate candies as big as a fist, tissues, and rolls salvaged from the Early Bird special would give you the shirt from her bag. Stuff that doesn’t really fit with your life so far, but you are still grateful. Without Grandma’s special treats, you’d have nothing but your entitlements from your parents; in my dad’s words, “You are entitled to three meals a day, college, and a wedding.” Dad was the Federal Government in my family. Once the wedding was over and paid for, I was supposedly on my own. Luckily my Dad is an ultra-liberal institution and he believes in supporting many of my endeavors in one way or another. (If you’re not reading this with a smile, you’re doing it wrong.)

Medicaid, however, began as medical insurance, but now is being used for all sorts of programs that do not fit under that category. And yet these programs are bound by Medicaid’s rules: its funds must be used for therapeutic purposes. So Long Term Support Services like Day Habilitations, are an entitlement for those who qualify for SSI (Supplemental Support Income) If a state does not have Medicaid Home and Community Based Waivers available, (and most do, but the funding is very tight), states must offer some kind of non-institutional setting for people with longterm disabilities like autism. But these non-Waiver settings are often not so great. They will say they are therapeutic, but this may consist of a group sitting around a table doing puzzles together (“social skill-building), sitting on a physio ball (gross motor exercise) or coloring (“small motor development”).

So: to generalize in non-expert layperson terms, it is hard to get Waiver money, which pays for job coaches and self-determined, creative day programs with nice small staff-to-client ratios. So if you don’t get Waiver money at age 22, and you don’t have a job you can keep after you graduate, you will likely go to a day hab (not a Waiver-based day program). What we want is more Waiver money, or for day habs to be offer more options for our guys, higher level pursuits. Why can’t Medicaid day hab (non Waiver) money be used to pay for continuing education or job supports of some sort? Or simply job-training of some sort? But what I hear, they cannot because of the Medicaid “rules.”

My knowledge ends here, but that may be enough. It is likely enough just to fuel your interest as an autism parent. If you think your school system has provided sub-par educational supports for your child — and that’s with an actual federal law mandating such — then you will feel kicked in the face when you go and visit day habs in your area (if you don’t get Waiver money).

The autism family whose guy has gone through Early Intervention, Pre-K- 12, through 22, will not be satisfied with the offerings in adulthood. The modern middle class general population autism parent who has discovered supported art, drama, math tutors, private specialists and therapies, social groups, Special Olympics, Challenger T Ball, Surfers Healing, etc., or some combination, or even one of these auxillary activities will want their guy to go to college, or take music classes, or work in an office, a store, a bakery, a car wash, a hospital — you name it, our guys will likely be able to do it with training, support, and rachmunis, (Yiddish, which to me means, from the Definithing website: “That which causes one to correct a wrong that is causing grief or pain to another.”) Compassion, doing the right thing. NOT PITY. Just — getting your act together and being a good person, Goddamitt.

The only way it is going to happen is when the great wave of autism families and autistics themselves question the authorities and say, “Hmm. There has to be something more. Let me ask my lawyer…” Just like you did during the school years. Or better yet, call your state rep or state senator and tell them that another Senator told you to reach higher.  You deserve more than a wrapped roll from the Early Bird Special.



Thursday, January 7, 2016

What Makes a Life Worth Living?

My latest piece is on the website It asks, “what makes a life worth living?” Enjoy!

Friday, January 1, 2016

A reason to raise a glass

On New Year’s Eve, my son Nat drank some spiked lemonade and passed out after midnight — from exhaustion. His roommate John texted me the next day to tell me. I don’t know if there’s ever been a time in Nat’s 26 years of life when I have not been worried about him, but when I heard about Nat drinking, I was not. In fact, I was happy. This felt like a rite of passage. Nat partied with friends on New Year’s Eve.

I am not as odd as I sound. Nat has fairly complex autism, and so his social development has been hard-won. So even a night of drinking might actually be cause for celebration in my family.

Most of the time I need to read Nat without words,  through a combination of watching his body language, and listening to his very quiet unintelligible self-talking. When those strings of Nat-words first emerged in early childhood, they seemed to loop and coil in the air, playful, joyful, and we called it “silly talk” — a deceptively lighthearted term for something I actually feared like a disease. Surely this was a sign of deep disability, far worse than we had realized when he was first diagnosed. And it was a call to arms for me. I had to get rid of it, or he would never be okay.

This began the long hard era of battling autism. Nat’s teachers at the time exhorted us to engage him, as much as we possibly could, fight for him, keep the dragon at bay. Interrupt, channel, redirect these impulses of his, dam up the ever-opening tributaries of aberrant, abnormal behavior. Our kid had to be forced into normal, or else he would be lost.

And so, raising Nat was exhausting, debilitating — for me, but far worse, for him.  What is a child to make of always being given the message that he is off somehow, that every sound that comes out of his mouth had to be caught by watchful Mommy, and pummeled into something else?

I don’t know when the light went on in me, and I realized I could stop. “It” wasn’t working, anyway. Silly talk will out. And what a relief it was to finally understand that, and to let go of all the fighting. Suddenly I knew in my core that yes, my job as Nat’s mother was to help him be the best he could be, to educate him about how to act in the world, but my main purpose was to let him be who he was.  One way that I could help him do that was to arrange for him to live away from me. Since the age of 17 Nat has had roommates and caregivers, and I have been a visitor in his life. His teachers and caregivers took over from me the work of teaching him independence.  This positive development has been heartbreaking to me, though, because a part of me still fears that I am doing wrong, that I have to be the one in charge of who Nat is.

Every now and then, though, I understand that the truth is, I don’t. When I get happy news from John, who is also his caregiver, I realize that with or without “normal” words, Nat is his own man. I’ll drink to that.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Christmas Story

You can listen and read my story from Tom Ashbrook’s “On Point” show here. My story is about taking Nat to my in-law’s Christmas dinner, and a sweet thing that happened as we were getting ready to eat.  Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Slow down. Just stop.

Recently while getting on the checkout line at a local supermarket, I sized up the backlog of items on the belt and the cashier and the packer — as I always do. It was around 3:30 in the afternoon, the last of the winter light thinning out, and the traffic outside was picking up. I was starting to feel the weight of the evening ahead sinking onto my shoulders. I wanted a quick checkout. The cashier had bright brown eyes and a cheerful round face peaking out from a head scarf. She had a strong smile and confident eye contact that told me all I needed to know. This was a good line to be in.

But then I saw the packer, moving as if in slow motion. Her mouth was slack on one side. I heard her explaining something to the customer ahead of me, something that did not need explaining. Ohh, I thought. Disability.

But, yeah, I have a son with a disability who also works in a supermarket, and I wanted to give this woman a chance.

My checkout went quickly, and before I knew it I was burrowing through my handbag for my wallet while the packer laboriously loaded my two bags. I was just writing the amount in my checkbook when I saw her hoist the bananas into the paper bag already stuffed with boxes of lettuce and the pineapple chunks. The bananas sat uncomfortably perched on the lettuce and started to tip. I reached out and quickly set it right, but the paper handle tore and the whole thing fell on the floor. She and I watched and waited for the disastrous splat. As the round plastic container of pineapple wheel to a stop, I knelt down and started stuffing everything quickly in to the ripped bag, while the packer exclaimed over and over, “Oh, no! That was my fault! I should have listened to you!”

I hadn’t actually said anything except maybe to murmur about the heavy bananas being tricky, but she was just horrified at herself. The more upset she got, the calmer I acted, determined that this would not be a problem. I said, “No, don’t worry, everything’s fine. Look,” and I gestured with the lumpy bag in my arms. She remained unconvinced and sad. I said again, “It’s fine. No worries,” and I walked out struggling with the bag, pretending I wasn’t.

I got to my car, with a prickly anxiety catching on my thoughts like thorns. What would happen to her? Would there be trouble? Probably not, because the store had to know about her challenges. And also because of me. I had tried to make the whole thing look like nothing, when really, as checkouts go, this was not that great. To have the customer fix the packing job, and then kneel down on the floor picking up her own groceries. To let her leave with a torn bag. In that little supermarket world, this was bad stuff.

And what if the customer hadn’t been someone like me? I got to thinking about the way the world is, beyond those automatic doors. People want things just so. We are all in a hurry — but to get where? Nowhere, really. Almost everything can wait, when you think about it. Yet we tailgate each other on the road bearing down on our horns, when we’re just trying to get home. Which can wait. Or to work, to an appointment. If we’re late there are consequences. So we have to be obnoxious, because we’re all a big bunch of dominoes. One tries to stand still, but then another one knocks into us. We just can’t stop. We can’t stop our twitchy brains or our wiggly fingers from pulling out the phone and tapping away. We are like sharks, we have to keep moving. Even sitting at a stoplight we have to do something.

We are a society that cannot slow down and breathe. We don’t allow ourselves to think. We expect everyone to move at top speed, ultra competent, no mistakes. But where are we all going? What is all the rush and rage about?

The days are growing shorter. Our hearts are racing, our teeth are gnashing.We say that this is the world, though. it’s a tough place. We have to live in it the way it is. Sink or swim.

But I think it can be different. We can slow down.


Our packages may burst. So pick them up. Because, really, we should be bursting. With joy. That we are even here, alive, today.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Book Me!

I’m now getting book signing and keynote offers for spring 2016 for Autism Adulthood, my book that will be out April 2016. Please let the disability/autism organization you love know that I am ready, willing, and able to do powerpoints, formal keynotes, informal talks, workshops, and readings. My topics are Autism and the Family, Autism and the Pursuit of Happiness, and of course Autism Adulthood. You can email my publicist Ashley Vanicek,, or me directly: to make arrangements and to find out specifics about what I do.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Rise of Individual Nat

I feel proud — probably smugly so — of my sons’ personalities and consciences. They share most of Ned’s and my values (caring about family, being kind and generous, trying to be a force of good in the world) and so I feel like we did the right thing by and large, working so hard every moment to teach them right and wrong. I know, however, that I get obsessed about my children. I know that my generation of parents is like that, though; it isn’t just me. In grad school I remember studying various theories on the evolution of the family — this professor’s particular bent was that the family is a social construct and it’s different everywhere, in every era, and social class. The research that stood out the most for me was Princeton historian Lawrence Stone’s, which theorized that affection and attachment, and the lavishing of attention on children did not occur in England until the 18th Century.   In addition to keeping children alive long enough to bond with them, the British middle class was doing very well economically. According to the Journal of Social History, Stone also found that the bourgeoisie was marrying often for love, rather than economic or property considerations. Stone called this “the rise of affective individualism.”

I bought Stone’s ideas, and so I know that my attitude towards my boys is not something shared eternally and everywhere. I especially remember watching my peers with their babies, back in the 1990′s when Max and Nat were little. So often I felt angry at the other parents for being lax, for letting “Little Precious” do anything they wanted — even if meant letting them take Max’s shovel right out of his fat little hand. I’d hear a lot of rationalizing from these parents; one even said to me that Max had to learn to be more assertive. Actually, another said the same about Nat. For years I thought it was Nat’s autism that she was scolding, and that was highly unfair. But now I realize that Max was blamed equally for, essentially, being the victim.

I suffered for my gentle children, even while I continued to reinforce high standards for them. They weren’t allowed to hit, they weren’t allowed to mess up a room without taking some responsibility. But my end of the deal was that I wouldn’t just sit on the couch and bark at them, nor would I hit them. I had to be off the couch as much as possible, on the floor with them. Guiding their language, their values, their morals. Calling them out for anything unkind or violent.

So maybe I was the Queen of Precious Children, after all. But I don’t really think so; my purpose was to teach them to be moral, ethical people, never cruel, always thinking of their actions. The lazy laissez-faire parents around me did not seem to realize that their goals for their kids had to be reinforced as much as possible. Every little interaction was potentially a teaching moment. It sounds tiring, and tiresome, and maybe I was. I know I was tired a lot, and did not have many friends when the boys were little. There were so few parents I could even stand to be around, because of the way they did not take responsibility for their kids’ behavior.

The first live theater we took the boys to was The Lion King, when they were around 2, 8, and 10. I remember seeing all the likely typically-developing kids around us misbehaving during the performance, with total impunity. I don’t mean that they should have been punished, I just would have liked for their parents to have given a shit. And there I was, antennae stuck way out, attending to everything Nat especially did because I wanted to be sure that he did not get away with “bad behaviors,” that clarion call of shame to so many autism parents.

It occurs to me I have had extra high standards for Nat because of my fear of public shaming.

It’s only later in life that I have learned to give everyone a break. Especially Nat. I now know that sometimes It’s the Disability, Stupid; and other times It’s Just Him Being Human, Stupid. Sometimes I need to separate what he can’t help because of autism and sometimes it’s what he can’t help because he’s simply having trouble.

Even in my first book I was certain that at age 2 1/4, when Max was born, that Nat’s autism was finally fully unsheathed, as was evident by the way he would cry and cry everywhere we went, stay in the stroller and not play, refuse to go to new places, refuse to be soothed. In my writings and in my talks all of that was Manifestations of His Disorder, and how I wished I had known what to do then.

Recently, however, I was remembering how another bout of Nat’s difficult behavior spiked when Ben was born, too. So much so that he was expelled from school, all of our caregivers quit, and we were afraid of what he might do to us. We all scratched our heads in bewilderment, wondering why, why, why. Was it the change of seasons, the lack of daylight? Was it preadolescence? Was it his diet? Was it behavior we had to crush with Neutral Ignoring and Rechanneling, While Looking For Moments To Reward Him for Good Behavior? Sheesh.

I had a flash of insight just a few days ago. Both difficult periods occurred when Nat’s baby brothers were born.

All my vigilance, obsessive wondering, suffering to figure out how to help and work with this difficult autism, and perhaps, just perhaps, it was all about Nat trying to adjust to having siblings. Imagine having a language and communication deficit and sensory overload and trying to adjust to someone else being on Mom’s lap, all the noise of babies, and CHANGE. Through my broken heart for my little Nat, struggling just as so many other kids do, for the same reason, I could also feel some relief that I was now seeing him just a little more clearly than ever before. And what I was seeing was just a boy. An individual, a good person despite difficulties, whom I could be proud of, love, and understand (eventually). Well, better late than never.


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