The next cycle of life for Nat — and me

Washington Post, July 10, 2010

On vacation in Cape Cod last weekend, I decided to take a bike ride into the next town. As I gathered my helmet, phone and water bottle, I saw that my adult son, Nat, was watching me. I knew he’d come along for the ride if I asked him, but I hesitated.

Nat has fairly severe autism. Like so many of his skills, his bicycling ability is erratic. He knows how to brake, but he does not know how to shift gears. He obeys traffic signals but is foggy about the more subtle, human signals. Or he seems foggy — I have never been able to test this definitively. But then, how do you test something that could endanger him or others? Hang back and see if he stops and looks both ways at a small side street with no stoplight? What about the other bikers, families and dogs along the way, all of whom he’d have to navigate carefully? How do you catch someone before he hurts himself if you’re also on a bike?

The answer is: You don’t. I know because I’ve tried.

When Nat learned how to ride, at age 7, he was merely going back and forth on our street, bookended by my husband, Ned, and my father. When they finally decided to step aside and see how Nat did, he took off — all the way around the block. There was some shouting and then outright screaming for him to stop and come back, but he kept right on going.

There was no time to get my bike, so I took off after him on foot. I ran fast, following him in time to watch him go around the first corner just right and stay on the sidewalk. But soon he pedaled out of sight, turning the second corner. I realized then, as I felt that leaden, incapacitating fear that our bodies seem to reserve for our children, that my son was, for the next moments, on his own, and that I had no idea what he would do.

In all of his seven years, Nat had never once been on his own. In any way. Of course he hadn’t; we just did not know how to find out if he would be okay. A normally developing child can give signals of what he can and cannot do, of what he wonders about and what confuses him. Nat could not do those things.

I knew all this and yet as I rushed back to our home, where I hoped he would end up, I felt a flicker of something other than fear. A rebellious voice in me challenged: Why wouldn’t he be okay? He knows how to ride and where to go. And when I reached our driveway, Ned voiced the very same point; he reminded me that even though this was terrifying, there was no reason to think that Nat would not continue around the third corner and come back on his own. He called it a “calculated risk.” I knew what he meant. I had just never thought to apply the concept to Nat.

I waited and watched for Nat, hoping Ned was right.

A few seconds later, Nat rounded the corner and pedaled toward us, with perfect biker’s form, steering, braking and stopping right where he should. He was grinning with excitement and delight. He knew, even without the words to express it, that he had accomplished something.

I felt I had accomplished something too, in this moment of letting go. It was the first time I understood that Nat could grow and develop away from me, and on his terms. It is a lesson I’ve had to learn again and again because each time there is risk involved.

So I took Nat with me the other day on my vacation bike ride — reluctantly, of course, because my old fears cling to me like a sweaty T-shirt. But he wanted to go with me, so how could I say no? Once we started riding, the specter of little mischievous Nat evaporated, replaced by the reality of solid, stolid grown-up Nat. Nat who pedals slowly and steadily, who still doesn’t talk much and certainly doesn’t allow you to know his thoughts. Nat who doesn’t walk his bike or stand on the pedals but just presses harder. This is the man he has grown into, dogged and competent, still limited in many ways by his autism — but more so by how we all underestimate him. Especially me.

I thought about that while riding behind him. But mostly I just breathed, a little more tense than I probably needed to be, watching out for him from a few feet back, while he chugged along, his yellow shirt lifting in the breeze like a sail.