Par­ents of autis­tic chil­dren must learn to em­brace the cy­cle of life

Austin American-Statesman - - OPINION -

On vacation in Cape Cod last week, 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 that 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; 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 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 that 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 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 waited and watched for Nat, hop­ing Ned was right. A few sec­onds later, Nat rounded the corner and ped­aled to­ward us, with per­fect 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 that moment of let­ting go. It was the first time I un­der­stood that Nat could grow and de­velop away from me, and on his terms.

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 Tshirt. 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 while he chugged along, his yel­low shirt lift­ing in the breeze like a sail.

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