Matt just attended the Labor Day Flea Market. He just walked about, seeking just the right find . . . just another bargain hunter in a sea of people that stretched from one end of town to the other . . . just one person of the 500,000 people who attended this year’s event . . . except, there was no “just” in any of it.
Matt is 27 and moderate to severely autistic and mostly non-verbal. And yet, he walked alone. He bought some items that made him happy. He blended in. No one knew and no one needed to. Matt was able to experience independence like never before. Just another day at the flea market - except it wasn't.
Many people think autism is a just a communication and social interaction disorder. For those individuals like my son Matt, autism is so much more than that. Matt was diagnosed with autism so severe the professionals recommended institutionalization. Basically, he was thought to be beyond my reach. Little did his doctors realize just what this mom can do when she is put in such a position (one that many parents like me now know all too well) or about the indomitable spirit of those afflicted with autism.
Over the years I knew his difficulties in social interaction arose out of his difficulties in communication - after all, one affects the other. When my son, Matt, was just a toddler he kept to himself and never spoke a word but over the years I learned his non-verbal language and he learned mine. In the early years Matt feared even small gatherings of people. He maintained a personal space that was much larger than most people’s, had melt downs, and cried when it got to be too much – but we never stopped trying. Little by little, year by year, Matt accepted more and more people into his inner circle and even began to enjoy their company. There were always sporting events, picnics, fairs and flea markets – each which garnered large gatherings of people and year by year Matt was exposed to all of them.
One event, the annual Labor Day Flea-Market, held in my husband’s home town of Hillsville, brought a massive sea of people together. They came from all over - vendor and bargain hunter alike - and it swelled over the years to encompass the entire town. The flea market has always been a big event for our small family and in spite of the crowds we took Matt. We were mindful of his discomfort in those early years and usually carried him through the crowds on our backs or shoulders. Matt eventually grew too heavy for carrying on my back and at some point he had to walk along side me holding my hand. To entice him to go without a fuss we would bribe him with the promise of buying him a train and our entire family group kept an eye out for anything railroad related that could bring a smile to my youngest son’s face - anything to make the overwhelming nature of the flea market worth the over-stimulation. Year after year we went until one year we noticed Matt was eager to go. It just got better from there.
We’ve been going to the Labor Day Flea Market now for over 20 years. The week before this year's gathering I asked Matt if he would like to walk the flea market on his own – he beamed. He could barely believe it. This would be the year that he was finally allowed to walk alone, shop alone, go where he wanted to go, and just blend in. That feeling of freedom must have been immense. I knew in my gut it was time and that he was ready. I knew because I had prepared him for such things. Matt had experienced shopping in stores alone for years now. He goes one direction as I go another and when it comes time to go I call him on his cell phone. He also has experience purchasing items by himself, be it food or music, toys or clothes. And Matt was excellent about knowing where he was at all times – as if he carried a map in his head (I am convinced my son has built in GPS).
So I knew my son was ready because of practice – years and years of practice. The big question really, was I? Was I ready to let go - even for 90 minutes - in a crowd so large?
My son is also a man now. A man that will soon live on his own – something unheard of in the autism community for someone on the moderate / severe end of the spectrum. It’s been a long awaited goal, practiced for since long before his high school graduation. His determination drove my determination and together we knew he was ready to experience independence. His name is currently on the waiting list for an apartment and we are just waiting for THE CALL - the call that will initiated the biggest move of my son’s life . . . and of mine. It’s been an exciting and yet scary year (exciting for Matt, scary for me). So yes, I knew Matt could walk the flea market alone (or I never would have asked him if he wanted to) because I knew in my heart he could. But that does not mean I wasn’t scared. Sometimes, this mom just needs to let go and have some faith. This was one of those times.
All summer long Matt reminded me how many days until the flea market on Labor Day weekend. When I announced last week that he could walk it on his own his joy was overflowing. To prepare him for the big day I took him shopping to buy him a new watch. Then we made sure his cell phone was charged. Finally, we set a plan in motion of when to meet, how often to call, what to do if someone was mean to him (call me or get a cop). I handed him his allowance for the day and off we went on a new and exciting adventure.
Our first stop was to see grandma, who was recovering from surgery in a rehab center one town over from the flea market. Unfortunately, while visiting her a severe storm warning came across the news and the skies turned black. The rain fell in buckets and the wind bent trees just outside grandma’s window. My heart sank. I looked at Matt. His heart was sinking too.
My step daughter, Sarah, and her husband Paul had stopped by also. Paul pulled out his smart phone and looked up the weather map. Matt leaned in to examine the situation. When we left I tried to convince my son it would be OK to go another day, but he wasn’t buying it. As we drove out of town the rain lessened and Matt pointed skyward and exclaimed, “It’s going away!”
“But another storm is coming, Matt. You saw it on Paul’s phone, remember?” I replied.
“I see a fragment of blue!” he exclaimed and put his thumb and forefinger an inch apart as a measure of the blue and then thrust his measured hope at my face exclaiming, “A fragment!”
“But what if it rains while we are there?” I asked tentatively.
“Duh . . . umbrella!” He said disgustedly.
OK, so I had an umbrella in the back of the jeep. With each mile I drove toward home (and away from the flea market) Matt’s frustration escalated. His frustration could not be contained a second longer and suddenly he smacked his thigh 4 times with the palm of his hand- pop, pop, pop, pop. Those pops meant his hopes of going it alone at the flea market were being dashed – and I was the cause. What was wrong with me? Was I avoiding it for other reasons? Was I …. Scared? Shouldn’t I at least try to be as brave as my son?
I pulled into a driveway and turned the jeep around. “I would only do this for you I’ll have you know…” I teased as we headed back toward the town of Hillsville and the hope of the massive flea market. I looked over and smiled. “We will at least give it a try, Matt.” With that statement came the resurgence of hope - his face re-lit with determination, and his eyes became bright once more.
The traffic headed towards town was light but the traffic headed out was bumper to bumper. Most shoppers were leaving, not wanting to bargain hunt in the rain. We always park in the center of town and while I easily found a place to park (because so many people had left), it had still taken us almost an hour to finally get to that spot – 45 minutes waiting in town traffic and yet his face never shown of worry or frustration – only hope. As soon as I cut the engine off, Matt grabbed the umbrella and jumped out. We proceeded down the hill toward the first set of booths. His step was so quick that I found myself trying to keep up with his strides. Excitement permeated the air around him.
“Check your watch. Call me in 30 minutes, OK? Check your cell phone. Let’s do a check. Call me.” I asked, as if all was great and it was just another, normal day. As if....
“OK.” He replied as he took out his phone and pressed the buttons. My phone rang. I opened it, “Hello?”
“Hi!” he exclaimed into his phone even though we stood next to each other.
“OK, we’re good. Call me at 5pm and let me know where you are, please.” I said.
“Uh, Ok.” He replied.
“Bye, Matt. Have a great time.” I said looking into his bright eyes.
“Bye!” Matt replied as he gave me a fist bump, turned and walked away - and my heart stopped.
What if? Nope – get those “what ifs” out of your head, Liz. I reprimanded myself, turned and forced my legs to walk in the opposite direction. For 15 minutes I strolled from booth to booth trying to look at various items but not really looking at anything at all. I was too busy forcing myself to just keep going. I rounded a corner, looked up and there he was, only 30 yards away. He looked right at me, smiled, waved excitedly, then turned and walked away once more. Believe it or not, that was all it took to calm me down – just seeing his face, reading his body language. Matt was just fine. It was exactly what I needed to see - my 27 year old autistic son blending in with the massive crowd, confident, happy and living a dream. I strolled off again in a different direction, more confident and more at ease.
I set to really looking at things and examining items that were appealing and I started to relax. At 5 minutes before his first call was due my phone rang. It was my husband. “How’s it going?” he asked immediately. Seems he was just as nervous as I had been 10 minutes earlier. We talked a few minutes but I knew Matt would call exactly at 5pm and we kept the conversation short. I hung up and strolled on. At exactly 5pm Matt rang my cell phone.
“Hello.” I said with a happy voice as if nothing out of the ordinary was occurring. I heard “Hello!” in an even happier voice in return. “Where are you?” I asked. “I’m at the Jockey Lot”, he replied.
Great! He knew his landmarks and I felt better knowing his internal GPS was working just fine. We made plans to call again in 30 minutes. Thirty minutes later I again got my much needed call and we planned to meet up at the top of the hill in 30 minutes more. I made record time to the top and then suffered the wait as I searched the sea of humanity for the light colored Virginia Tech hat he always wore. When I spotted him I noted that he was in search mode, looking this way and that, trying to spot my face. I called out and waved. He glanced in my direction and his face immediately changed from one of worry to one of sheer joy. My heart began to beat once more.
We walked together a while, ate some ice cream and slowly strolled back down the hill toward the car, walking side by side. He stopped only once to show me a sign for comic books and I said I would help him find it the next day. Finally, the jeep was in sight. We both let out a sigh of relief. I opened the trunk to put in our bags and as I set my bag down Matt looked at me and asked, “What did you get?”
I stood stunned for only a moment and then told him of the blue shawl with fringe as I pulled it from the bag to display it. “That’s really cool!” he said as he put his own bags in the trunk next to mine. Matt had NEVER asked me what I purchased before. Not ever. His curiosity was as genuine as his approval. As I walked to the driver’s side door I had to fight back a happy dance (with happy tears). Matt had just asked me about something important to me…..unexpected and out of the blue. He had just initiated a conversation! This was so much more than just a walk around the flea market.
So, in all, Matt had spent 90 minutes on his own in the largest gathering I could have possibly subjected him to. He did so confidently. He knew his way around, purchased some items,and strolled as a free and independent young adult. He blended in and got to feel “normal”. My son is 27 years old and he deserves the right to feel just as free as any other 27 year old. His 90 minutes on his own must have felt like heaven. He was so relaxed and so calm upon our return to the car that he even verbally initiated a conversation (first ever). Matt doesn’t initiate conversations – at least he didn’t until that moment. I can never say that phrase again.....
The hurdles we face as parents of an autistic child seem never ending and maybe they are – but as his mom I say, “so what?” I have learned to jump the hurdles with my son and now we tackle them almost effortlessly – almost. We may plan for the big hurdles but we focus on the small ones right in front of us – because we know if we can jump those, we can get there – we can jump anything. On Labor Day two hurdles were cleared; he was able to prove to himself that he could function well in a crowd all on his own and he initiated a conversation with me without prompting. I would say it was a very successful day.
We are very hopeful for Matt’s future. I have learned to “just” breathe. “Just” relax – knowing that I can do this - whatever this is. It “just” takes practice. When one thing doesn’t work, I “just” try something new. And slowly over the years I have learned to “just” let go– bit by bit. After all, it’s “just” autism.
And there’s no “just” in any of it.