Autism: Educate thy neighbor
It was a beautiful April afternoon in Lafayette. Matthew, who is now 24, was approaching his fourteenth birthday and was sitting at the kitchen table painting with watercolors peacefully while his younger brothers Andy and John kicked the soccer ball around in our backyard. We had had our share of bumpy days lately, but this was not one of them. I walked through our front door to clip some roses when I noticed the mail had just come.
In the midst of catalogs and bills was an official-looking envelope addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Peter Shumaker that got my attention.
On letterhead from the offices of attorney Casper White, it read: "I am writing you regarding the bicycle accident involving your son, Matthew, on March 8, 2002 (about a month before) blah, blah, blah, I am representing so-and-so who was injured in the accident, please contact me, etc."
I walked into the kitchen where Matthew was painting and asked, "Did you have an accident on your bike?"
"Who told you?" Mathew replied calmly.
"Someone wrote me a letter about it. Were you hurt?"
"Who else was in the accident?"
Oh, my God.
"Was he hurt?"
"Was he bleeding?"
God help me.
"Matthew," my voice quaking, "did an ambulance come?"
"I give up. I'm done talking about this."
He resumed painting, at which point I lost it.
"Matthew! I need to know what happened! Where did this happen? Was there anyone there that you know? Did anyone ask you questions?"
Matthew's lower lip quivered as he tapped his paintbrush nervously on the table. "Am I in trouble?"he whimpered.
I took a breath and said, "No, of course not. You just paint and we'll talk about this later."
I hugged him and he choked back a few sobs and continued painting.I went back to my bedroom and called the attorney, my eye on the blue bike in the backyard.
Mr. White, the attorney, explained to me that his client and his nine-year-old son were riding bikes at the middle school around the corner from our house. He said that Matthew and his client's son had collided. Matthew had stopped for a moment, then fled. The nine-year-old had broken his leg. Badly. He would be in a wheelchair for six weeks. The family had no medical insurance.
"I understand your son has autism."
My mind raced to the conclusions made by the boy's family, the attorney, and our community. This thirteen-year-old autistic boy is riding his bike without supervision, collides with and injures a child, and leaves the scene. His parents are negligent. He is a danger to those around him.
"He wants to ride his bike at the playground like any thirteen-year-old. I can't watch him every second," I would counter.
But I knew that unlike other thirteen-year-old boys, he did not have the judgment needed to manage these kinds of situations. I had hired after-school helpers to take him for bike rides and other activities, but Matthew was not supervised every second. I tried to keep track of him, but he snuck out regularly.
I was anxious to get off the phone to call an attorney friend of mine, but remembered to ask one last question. "How did you get Matthew's name and address? "From a neighbor who didn't want to be identified," he said.
Now, 10 years later, I am a big autism advocate who regularly advises parents on situations like these.
"Educate your neighbors about autism and you child's quirks," I might say, "Circulate a flyer with your phone number that explains autism. Keep track of your child by taking advantage of the new GPS technology."
All great ideas.
But back then, I was so tired and heartsick that I didn't have the energy to do any of it. We had just moved to the neighborhood, my beloved mother was in the hospital with a life threatening illness and my husband was being treated for cancer.
Life can be messy.
What I didn't know was that my neighbors were curious about Matthew and about our family. They wanted to know "what the deal was". They wanted to help (or at least to understand.)
Give your neighbors credit. They, too, might have messy lives. But if they know what you are facing, they'll do there best to help you.
Laura Shumaker is the author of A Regular Guy: Growing up with Autism, and a columnist for www.5minutesforspecialneeds.com. Her essays have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Contra Costa Times, East Bay Monthly, The Autism Advocate, on cnn.com and NPR Perspectives. Laura speaks regularly for schools and disability groups and lives in Lafayette, California with her husband, Peter, and her three sons.