The sim­ple mo­ment when my autis­tic son was treated like any other per­son

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - BY SU­SAN SE­NA­TOR Su­san Se­na­tor is au­thor of “Autism Adult­hood: Strate­gies and In­sights for a Ful­fill­ing Life.”

Un­like with most of the im­por­tant changes I go through, I can pin­point the ex­act mo­ment when I stopped griev­ing a re­cent trau­matic event in my son’s life. This un­ex­pected shift hap­pened dur­ing one of those crazy-hot days we had in April. The sky was hazy with the new green from baby leaves; the cherry trees were burst­ing with pink con­fetti. I had taken my son, Nat, home with me for the af­ter­noon — he lives in a group home with other in­tel­lec­tu­ally dis­abled adults. He’s sup­posed to stay at the home on week­ends, to get used to this new house, to be­come in­de­pen­dent of us. But on that sunny Sun­day, I just wanted him with me.

On our drive to our house, I re­al­ized that I had no plans for him. That’s usu­ally the case, though, and most of the time it weighs heav­ily on me. It is hard to know what to do with Nat be­cause most of his hap­pi­ness comes from within, and from un­know­able things — not from en­gag­ing with oth­ers. In­stead, he prefers to sit qui­etly in a sunny spot and talk to him­self in his own lan­guage. I think that talk­ing to oth­ers is Nat’s hard­est task, and I be­lieve he in­vented his “Silly Talk” — at the age of 5 — as a way to keep our words out. Peo­ple see Nat chat­ter­ing these ap­par­ently non­sen­si­cal words, and they con­clude that he can’t un­der­stand them, that they shouldn’t even try to talk to him.

He can­not tell me so many things. He could not even tell me that his ribs were bro­ken last sum­mer, or how it hap­pened. I found out when I saw the fist-shaped bruise on his chest. And I have been griev­ing, beat­ing my­self up ever since — for al­most a year — be­cause I did not know, and be­cause I failed to pro­tect him. I could not stop feel­ing this way be­cause I am his mother and some­how should have known.

I didn’t want to just sit around with those sad feel­ings on such a beau­ti­ful day, so I opted for the eas­i­est so­lu­tion: a trip to Star­bucks. It is an easy thing to do with him. Go­ing for treats is some­thing we both like. It would get us out­doors, and I would get an iced cof­fee out of it. And of course Nat would have his fa­vorite cookie — “chaw-chih coo­gie” is how he pro­nounces it.

Nat can or­der a choco­late chip cookie. Just like he can tie his shoes, or step on a scale at the doc­tor’s of­fice. But still the nurse or the per­son at the counter speaks to me as if he is not even there. When they do speak to him, it’s “good boy!” He’s 27.

These in­ter­ac­tions with the pub­lic in­fan­tilize him, keep­ing him for­ever de­pen­dent. I don’t know what Nat knows, or if he re­al­izes how he is pa­tron­ized, mis­un­der­stood or over­looked. But then I think of his per­pet­ual Silly Talk and I fear the an­swer. So when we got into line at Star­bucks that af­ter­noon and waited our turn, I was pre­pared for the usual twinge, the re­minder of the chasm be­tween Nat and the world. That, on ev­ery level, he is a stranger to most hu­man be­ings.

The barista, a slim, pale young man with brown hair, looked over and asked what he could get us. Nat said, “Chaw-chih coo­gie,” and I got ready to trans­late, em­bar­rassed for Nat, and for the barista. I was about to step in and help, when in that split se­cond, I don’t know why, I just looked away. I could not do it. Af­ter all, Nat had told the guy loud and — well, kind of, clear. I waited.

So the barista sim­ply re­peated to Nat, “Choco­late chip cookie?” I glanced at Nat, my mouth still shut.

Maybe he sensed the guy was ac­tu­ally tak­ing him se­ri­ously. Maybe he no­ticed I was hold­ing back. What­ever it was, Nat an­swered him with a per­fect, soft, “Yes.”

And off the guy went. Just like that, like noth­ing at all had hap­pened. “Oh, you want it warmed up?” he shouted. “Yes,” Nat said, again. No one was even look­ing, no one cared. Why should they? It was just a guy buy­ing a cookie. But to me Nat was like Abra­ham, step­ping for­ward and say­ing to God, “Here I am.”

I fished a dol­lar out of my wal­let and stuffed it in the tip jar, my mea­ger of­fer­ing of thanks. Nat col­lected his cookie and found us seats at the win­dow. I floated my way over to him, so light, so proud. And hope­ful. I hadn’t felt that way with Nat for so long. We sat side by side with too much sun in our eyes, not talk­ing, be­cause ev­ery­thing im­por­tant had al­ready been said.

I was pre­pared for the re­minder of the chasm be­tween Nat and the world.

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