Autism and the Home Field Advantage (#268)
Being five feet tall—"vertically challenged/impaired/less than blessed in the height department"–has its disadvantages: Having to cling desperately to the top shelf at the grocery store, toes on the edge of the bottom shelf, to grab a box of Charlie’s favorite crackers. Not being able to use more than half of the whiteboard in my classroom. Dragging over a chair to pull down the screen to show my Latin class a DVD.
Then there are the advantages: Sitting quite comfortably in the kiddie-size chairs at the center where Charlie does his speech therapy. Not being clearly identifiable as "A Mom" when Charlie and I were at a playground this afternoon.
Charlie got off early from school and, after his usual lunch-size snack, we were out for a walk, towards the neighborhood school that Charlie would have attended (and that he attended for a few months when we first moved to our town). The crossing guard was on duty and remembered Charlie. "Do you want to go this way"—with a broad arm motion—"or that way"—with another.
"Dissway," said Charlie, and pointed straight. "Okay, move quickly!" The crossing guard moved into the middle of the street. "How’s he doing?" she asked as I walked by. "Good, really great, he’s in a school he really likes," I said, and race-walked to catch up with Charlie.
It was 3pm and school was just letting out. Charlie paused on the sidewalk as 8- and 9- year olds (the girls nearing my height) hurried by, some glancing fast over at Charlie.
These would have been his fellow students. This was Charlie’s neighborhood playground where he ought to have the home field advantage. We walked round to the structure, where Charlie did his usual check into the window of the classroom he had briefly attended. A gaggle of boys–one with an overgrown Mohawk, another covered in tanbark dust–were slamming and scaling the play structure when we walked up. Charlie stopped about ten feet away and a smile rose slowly in his face. Then he hurried up the big metal slide and ran over the bridge, boys before him, boys behind.
Charlie paused at the end of the bridge and looked back.
A rather large boy was sitting at the top of a smaller slide and slowly went down, head first, only to lie there, legs kicking. Charlie was standing beside the slide and gave the other boy a momentary back-pat. Then he ran back to the big slide and sat at the top, waiting for me to call up "Ready, set go!". Charlie always walks back up the slide but two other boys were whizzing down and Charlie went down and ran off.
Another pack of boys (and two girls) had appeared and words, quite incoherent and perhaps colorful, were exchanged. In my dusty pants and fleece with a 4’6" kid who looked an awful like me, I kicked at the tanbark.
Charlie climbed, slid, and ran, bending his body just enough to stay out of the way of the boys who were what my mom would term "rowdy." Some kind of contest–conflict–war–was going on between Group #1 (3 boys, including the one who was rather large) and Group #2 (who had the girl-acolytes). Charlie paused, stood up very straight, and looked at me. "Mike here."
"Yeah, we’d better head back to see Mike." And away we went across the field to our house, where Charlie positioned himself on the porch to be on the lookout for his ABA therapist.
Having autism is commonly seen as having many disadvantages. To be autistic is to be impaired, handicapped, disabled; socially awkward if not inept; autism is "officially" classified as a "developmental disability" and professionals speak of comorbidities, of a "dual diagnosis" of autism and MR. Living with autism and raising a child with autism are the sort of things one would prefer not to do.
I cannot speak as truly about the advantages of autism as an autism author like Zilari of Processing in Parts or Amanda of Ballestexistenz does. I’m a parent and subject to making all those mistakes we all end up thinking our parents made. (For the record, "rowdy" is not an adjective my own parents would have applied to me.) Raising an ASD child is "disadvantageous" to the extent that it can be pretty hard, that one faces decisions such as "which neuroleptic medication should I give my child?" and "over my dead body is that going to happen to him," for a boy who is maybe eight years old. As readers of this blog know, Charlie’s worst behaviors are those in which he hurts himselves and I can tell you, there is nothing worse than seeing my own child do such.
Having autism–having Charlie—gives Jim and me the best and biggest home-field advantage because we’re on Team Charlie. We’re combination coach–water boy/girl–trainer–defensive coordinator–special teams–front office–marketing–cheerleader. This team is about a lot more than competing for space on the playground or for future dates’ attention. This team is all about not fumbling that ball, not fouling out, not having to punt on fourth down when it’s too late. This team is about strategy and about staying in possession of the ball by having a good running game and working together.
Charlie will never attend his "neighborhood school." It has been established, that he needs a private placement in order to learn best. But how at home he and I felt just to be near that school-that-would-have-been-his—-besides the boys I might have invited over for cookies and videos and pizza, or who might have stolen the lunch money from a geeky professors’ kid who played the cello. In Autismland I have been learning, just when I think I’m home, I realize the run is contested–the catcher had the ball, yells the ump—and I’m tasting dust.
But what Charlie has done for Jim and me, for our family, our families—–
The advantages of autism are dirt transfigured into the heavy gold of the bracelet my grandmother wore on the boat over from China and through her detainment on Angel Island. My dad gave me the bracelet when Jim and I were married. It is inset with wood and it is a lot heavier than it looks.
Like Charlie. Like autism.
Boy does that gold gleam bright.