Getting That Phone Call: An Autism Mom’s Nightmare

Psychology Today, June 30, 2019

I will never forget getting that call. The one that so many parents fear, and my worst nightmare: someone had called the police on my son. And in my circle—the autism mom circle of Hell—the knife cuts deep. Our autistic children labor to understand the natural ever-changing nature of the outside world, but it is still so easy for them to be misunderstood—sometimes with unspeakable consequences.

This time the caller, a chaperone on his social group outing, was screaming, “Oh my God you’ve got to come get Nat he’s out of control, he’s hurting people he’s throwing things! Help, oh God, Nat, no, stop…!”

My husband and I ran to the car, nauseated with fear. My God, we felt so far away. The restaurant—the Cheesecake Factory—was twenty minutes’ drive at least from our home. And I knew just how out-of-control Nat can seem, though he does know how to calm down fairly quickly. But profound anxiety, so frequently autism’s dark partner, sweeps over him like a forest fire. Usually it is because something diverged from the routine he expected. Then—even though he is a grown man—he smacks his head, jumps, screams. It’s as terrifying as it is heartbreaking not to know how to help him. To understand that he most of all wants to respond differently but cannot in that moment. You stand back, helpless, sweaty and sick.

So I understand that impulse some have to simply call the police, to see him as someone he absolutely is not: a scary monster. But at the word “police,” my fear blows up, purple and huge. I screamed into the phone, “No! Wait! Don’t let the police hurt him! I’ll be right there!” My husband and I jumped into the car and hurtled down the highway. Acidic adrenaline, both fight and flight, pulsed through my body and all I could think was, The police. They won’t understand. They’ll yell things that he won’t understand. This is how it happens. This is how he will die.

We pulled up right in front of the mall. I could see the neon vests of three or four policemen, just inside the Cheesecake Factory lobby. I ran through the doors choking on bloody fear, my eyes sweeping the place for—what? Nat on the ground? Bleeding? Held down by the police? I shouted to the police, “I’m the mom!” and paused on the precipice, terrified.

But one of them merely nodded as if I were asking directions. He said, “Oh, he’s right inside.” Nat was okay! I flew inside. Then, out of the corner of my eye, a flash of orange: Nat, in his favorite shirt. And out of nowhere came the chaperone tearful but smiling. We hugged, while over her shoulder I got a good look at Nat. Now I could see that he was leaning comfortably against a tall man in a chef’s outfit, whose arm was draped across Nat’s chest, hooked under his arm. “I’m so sorry,” I said to him, bursting into tears.

“Oh, no problem, Ma’am,” he said kindly.

I exhaled. “Thank you so much.”

Then I noticed the manager standing next to me, in somber clothes, radiating authority. Here goes, I thought. The other bad news: the damage. Stomach clenched, I said with a shaky voice, “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.” I searched her face, ready to meet my punishment. Nat had thrown glasses, and who knew what else, after all. “Please let me know how I can pay for the damage.”

But she simply said, “Oh, no, don’t worry about that! Everything’s fine, really,” she said looking me right in the eye—with concern—for me. And then, of all things, she handed me a Cheesecake Factory take-out bag. “Oh, this is his lunch, by the way.”

You’re giving him his lunch?! Where was the outrage, the folded arms, tight angry faces, the warnings never to come back? That’s what I am used to when some people come up against Nat’s anxiety—shaming, ugly ignorance, and the taste of dry dirt in my mouth.

I just couldn’t think straight. I just wanted to get out of there, before everyone changed their minds or something.

But deep down I knew they wouldn’t. Their kindness was real. I think some of them were even smiling. These people had actually helped, not hurt, nor hated, him. From the police to the chef, everyone saw him, not that Scary Disabled Guy. And responded with clarity and compassion. (I was to find out later that in this city, Cambridge, Massachusetts, the police department had undergone special mental health awareness training, which may have helped enormously in Nat’s situation.)

I know there may be more scary phone calls in the future. Nat’s struggles are not over. But that day, we were okay because of some ordinary, extraordinary people. “Come on, Sweetheart, let’s go home,” I said. He nuzzled his bearded chin against my cheek and let me kiss him. We walked together back to the car, the colorful lunch bag swinging lightly from my arm.