A party is not just a party... it's a social interaction to the extreme!
I am always amazed at the continued learning that takes place for my son, long after high school and deep into his adult life. A diagnosis of autism brings with it so many misconceptions, one of which is that the behaviors witnessed in a 2 ½ year old are permanent. Of course they are not, as many parents can attest to - they are ever changing throughout their early years, regardless of which therapy is chosen. As long as there are loving interactions and a willingness to accept that autism requires a different way of learning and for parents, a different way of teaching, then anything is possible.
Over the 27 years of navigating the ups and downs of autism I know my son, Matt, is learning in his own way how to communicate and interact socially. There are times when my role has been simply as his cruise director, helping him enjoy an experience I know is difficult for him to participate in. Never had this been clearer to me than this week as Matt and I attended a party for my mentor, Fred, who was retiring from teaching college science.
Fred was one of my science teachers when I returned to college to seek a degree in Biology. He offered research experience as one of his course offerings – research on spiders – and I was eager to learn and get that experience. The research required me to come in at odd times and even weekends and with no babysitter I decided to make these trips an adventure for our 4 children. I remember their first time in the spider lab. They were all so curious and eager, all except for Matt. Matt was curious too, but scared. He remained in the hallway just outside the door, pacing back and forth as he listened to the questions and answers from a safe distance. It took several trips before Matt could bring himself to enter that creepy room with spiders in boxes, fruit flies in vials, strange musty smells, humming computers and bright lights. He eventually did and he eventually began to feel safe enough to look at the tall bearded stranger that hung out there on occasion. Fred always laughed and smiled – the key to encouraging Matt to accept him as one of the "good guys". Matt rarely spoke a word in those years so communication was mostly through Fred’s humor and my translation to Matt in short, precise sentences and then describing everything to him in detail when we would return home. Matt learned about spiders, about research and came to like the gentle giant known as “Fred”.
I returned to the same college again for my Master’s degree and yes, I would take Matt along on occasion for more adventures. Matt was older and by then very willing to walk with my husband around campus, take pictures and explore all the new areas while I was in class. Matt had become intrigued with college campuses and one of his favorites was Radford - his mom's favorite and the place where he saw Fred. While on campus Matt would have to stop by the library, his favorite place, so he could check out the science books and magazines. Science had become his favorite subject. We also would swing by Fred’s office to see if he was there just to say hello.
Years later, I returned to the same campus once again as an adjunct science instructor. Matt was thrilled with the news and eager to explore once again the campus of so many childhood experiences. The campus was still growing – there was always something new to see. How many times did he run into Fred over all those years? There were so many occasions for a friendly “hello” and “what have you been up to lately?” Each chance encounter renewed his memory of his favorite gentle giant.
Last week I received the email invite to Fred's retirement. I excitedly told Matt of the event and without missing a beat he wrote it on our calendar in big bold letters. He didn’t have to think about it, didn’t wonder if he could manage to be around so many strangers, didn’t ask what it would be like or become anxious (like he does when I invite him to picnics and other events). Not this time. This time Matt just took it as common knowledge that he was going with me. There would be almost 100 people attending . . . Matt would know only one. Could he really do this?
Up to now Matt had never wanted to go to parties. He didn’t like picnics or large events unless family were involved and always expressed a simple “no” when asked if he wanted to attend. Just wanting to go to Fred’s retirement party was therefore a new milestone, another barrier broken through. The big questions in my mind were “How would he react?" and " Would he be able to handle the sounds of unknown voices, the movements of strangers, and the smell of foods he would never attempt to even taste?”
I’ve been navigating autism for a very long time now so it was just natural to take care of the small road blocks to his enjoyment of the evening – I basically paved the way for a smooth night. The first thing we did was drive to the location of the party (at a retreat in the woods) the day before. We drove the long winding path so Matt could memorize the signs and the landscape. He even took a few pictures of the mountain views. The next day I made sure we stopped for his favorite meal of chicken nuggets on the drive there. I purposefully waited until I knew most people were already there, arriving an hour late, just so Matt could ease into the room without wondering what to do and all the attention would be on Fred. When we entered the speeches were under way and Matt immediately picked out Fred. His joy at seeing his favorite spider-man was obvious - a smile graced his face from ear to ear.
When the speeches were over we made our way to Fred, who greeted us enthusiastically and spoke to Matt as naturally and light hearted as always. Matt took pictures, and even gave me his camera so I could take one of him with Fred.
I saw other people I wanted to speak to also, some I had not seen in ages, and Matt followed along. As soon as he would glance downward and pace back and forth – a sign of distress – I knew that was my cue to introduce him and brag on his preparations for the big move to his own place. The person listening took that cue from me and ran with it, asking Matt simple questions that allowed him to focus on his plans and his joy. One conversation became very extended for me and when I looked up I noticed that Matt had walked away. I scanned the room once or twice and finally decided to search for him. I found him in the hallway reading the posters – something he likes to do at the college. He really didn’t want to go back in but he didn’t want to leave. I was expecting this dilemma and asked him if he needed a drink. I had brought a cooler of pop and left them in my Jeep for just such an excuse to casually get out and away from the commotion for a few minutes. He jumped at the chance, thankful he had a reason to take a break. Appearances, after all, are everything to Matt.
We took our time and slowly walked in the dark toward the Jeep, commenting on the stars and the beautifully warm evening. Once there we sat for a few minutes and I asked him a few questions and made small talk until I could gage how he was faring. After a few minutes of down time I could see he was ready to go back in for round 2. People were beginning to leave by then and the crowd was thinning out and that helped Matt feel more at ease. We once again got a chance to actually speak with Fred a bit more and Matt’s smile was bigger than ever. I introduced Matt to Fred’s wife, Cindy, who was just as warm and gentle as her husband. Matt took to her immediately.
Overall, it was a wonderful night. Matt handled it all. He did his best and he did great and I told him so as we drove home. This was his first time mingling in a crowd of strangers and although I was prepared to go at the slightest hint that he was too overwhelmed it never got to that point. He did it. He actually did it.
I don’t think Fred had the slightest idea of what a big deal this whole night was to my youngest son. He was simply himself; gracious, smiling, laughing, the gentle giant Matt (and I) revered. Thank you, Fred, for pushing me to be my best without ever seeming to push, and thank you also for having that exact same affect on my dear son. You did it all so effortlessly.
As for Matt, well, all I can tell you is that learning never stops, and that is true for those with autism or not. Who knows what the next barrier will be that will come crashing down as Matt continues to grow and navigate his ever changing environment. One thing I do know? Nothing, it seems, is impossible.