When Nat was a very little guy — before I knew about the autism that seemed to be knotting tight little nooses around his brain cells — I wanted nothing more than to be that friendly-faced mom who took her toddler to every single enrichment activity she could find. There was something called Warmlines, which promised mommy support and toys; Gymboree; library book hour; mother-child swim class; baby music school; and on and on. I’d go, but every single one of these activities blew up in my face. I became more and more wary of the “amazing” teachers, the “patient” librarians, the fun-loving moms because my little guy just did not fit in. He would suck his thumb and just watch, or he would cry and cry. Or mouth the communal toys or walk in circles.
This experience was symbiotic, however. It was not all on autism. It was me, too. I don’t know if I was reacting to the Autism Unacceptance/ignorance going on with those mothers and their precious little normal kids, or if it was that I was going in with a big rock on my shoulder, but I was damned uncomfortable in those places. I soon began to feel that everything was going to fail and that something was just wrong with my son, my parenting, and the stupid world.
To be really honest, I only blamed myself. Of course I did. Who blames a darling son, my Nat who caught my heart so hard that I almost didn’t dare to breathe. This boy, from the moment I clapped eyes on him, was in need of protection. Almost from the beginning of his life, I knew that my life was no longer my own.
I don’t know when it happened, sometime around when Nat was 10 when I got the idea to sign him up for gymnastics in Cambridge, with Special Olympics. I think what fueled this was a burst of development (on his part), a new level of communication skill, a new exuberance with the world around him. He did great in gymnastics even when things were falling apart for him in school and at home. And from then on, I put all my faith in Special Olympics.
We went through all the Phases of Special Olympics Parenting:
1) shy, hesitant, will-this-work?
2) hey, look at that, he’s actually playing!
3) hey, no one is judging him!
4) hey, the other parents get it!
5) hey, the parents are friendly!
6) hey, let’s make a playdate after practice! (First playdate!)
7) hey, the State Games are amazing hooplah-achievement-pride fests!
8) hey, there are other sports, too! All year-round! with the same guys!
9) hey, what else can they do, in addition to sports?
10) hey, my kid has a life.
Fifteen years after gymnastics, I am PhD-level Special Olympics Mom. From Special Olympics I have made some solid friends, joyous people who make any excuse to throw a party where everyone’s invited, who find new organizations, new pursuits for our kids, who even create them. One friend found a violin teacher for his kid and out of that grew MUSE Foundation and two performing bands. Nat is now a drummer. Another friend has started AHEF, the Autism Higher Education Foundation, first as a partnership with the Boston Conservatory, and then with area law firms so that our guys can learn symphonic music, and also intern in offices doing data entry, shredding, copying, filing. Another friend started a social outing group so that our guys could go to concerts, sports events, movies, mini golf, restaurants. This venture led to our town expanding Parks and Rec to offer Recreation Therapy, and now our guys take cooking, nutrition, and computer classes. And one other friend discovered Ascendigo, a fantastic extreme sports camp for autism that firmly planted Nat into the Most Athletic Guy in Our Family category.
Nat learned how to ride a horse at Ascendigo, and that has now led to my finding him Equestrian Therapy at Ironstone Farm. I am hoping that there will be other animals around that will ease Nat out of his fear of dogs. But that may also happen through his Day Program, which offers Buddy Dog volunteering once a week or so.
So this fall, Nat has: Band on Tuesdays, Flag Football on Wednesdays, Drum Circle on Thursdays, and Equestrian Therapy on Fridays. In November we’ll start basketball on Saturdays.
I take Nat to these activities and I wait outside, or hang around the perimeter of the field. I talk to the parents or I don’t. By now I’ll see those friends of mine — the autism parents I’ve known forever by now — at one of the parties or the social group trips or the drumming. When I start to drag my heels and think about retreating — that decades old leave-me-alone tendency of mine — there’s this one friend who needles me into going. Autism friends don’t let autism friends sit home alone.
And if that doesn’t work, there’s always Nat who looks at his busy calendar and demands to go. I can’t imagine not having a full calendar now, and it’s because of Nat. Perhaps those neuron knots that seemed to be choking off his development just needed time to form their own pattern, and strengthen his mind into what it is today: powerful, determined, social (!), and ever-expanding, a universe in itself.