Nolan was happy when he took this selfie. Then all hell broke loose.
Cindy and I launched this blog nearly a year ago to share what life is like raising a teenage son who has Autism and is nonverbal. I’d like to think that during that time more than a few of you have gotten to know our family a little better, as well as what we deal with on a daily basis.
I don’t think anyone can truly understand the challenges of raising a special-needs child unless he or she is the parent of one, but I think the message of several of our posts has been the only predictability in our lives is the unpredictability. One moment my heart can be bursting with pride over seeing something such as Nolan settling back into his once-a-week music therapy sessions after a long layoff. In a matter of a couple hours, both Cindy and I might be muttering expletives and simultaneously marveling at how much shampoo with which he can cover both himself and our bathroom.
Situations can, and do, change in the blink of an eye any time, anywhere. Most of time I could care less what John Q. Public thinks when Nolan goes from happy to angry to sad and back to angry and putting me in a headlock all in the span of two minutes. But sometimes I can’t help myself.
Last Thursday was one of those “This is why I love autumn in Wisconsin” days: abundant sunshine, temperatures in the mid-60s. There was no doubt that Nolan and I were going to walk home from the high school that he attends. It’s a bit of a hike at about 10 blocks, but we had gone on longer walks – very willingly on his part – this past spring and summer. We’d walked home from school both Tuesday and Wednesday with almost no bellyaching on his part. And I was convinced that Thursday would be no different.
And it wasn’t, at least for the first 1½ blocks. One moment Nolan was calmly walking down the sidewalk, and the next he was crying. Not a quiet cry, either, but rather one the decibel level of AC/DC lead singer Brian Johnson screaming a greeting to a sold-out Madison Square Garden, only without the aid of a monster public address system. Not only was Nolan’s crying loud, but it was also steady. On a very quiet street. With the windows of some of the houses in the neighborhood open.
Nolan has had his share of difficult moments on our walks to the tennis courts by the middle school in our neighborhood, but at least a few of the folks who live in our neighborhood have seen him enough times to know he has an obvious disability. No one who lives on the five-plus blocks from the high school to Main Street, where we cross into more familiar territory, knows us. Almost all the students at the high school are doing virtual learning through at least early October, so right now foot traffic along the street is almost nonexistent at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. Anyone who was curious about the racket outside saw an inconsolable young man and a bald guy doing his best to diffuse a tense situation:
“Breathe, Nolan. Come on, buddy. Breathe.” I tried to apply that advice to myself, and it had the same effect, meaning none at all.
Me, taking Nolan’s iPad out of his backpack: “Tell dad what you need.” He let me know via his communication program he wanted water. I hadn’t brought any with me.
“We’re almost there, buddy. Hang on – almost there.” I remember the guy who was Red Leader in “Star Wars” saying almost the same thing as he flew his X-Wing toward a small exhaust port and prepared to launch the proton torpedoes that would blow up the Death Star. That didn’t exactly end well for him.
So while Nolan was sobbing and I was trying to both calm him down and keep him moving, I noticed the delivery truck that was making frequent stops on the street where we were walking. The two guys in the truck had quite a few packages to drop off. I’m sure they couldn’t help but notice the crying young man and the guy with him who was trying to keep his cool, but starting to look a little more worried. This is when my paranoia really went into overdrive.
“They’re watching me and probably thinking they’re witnessing a kidnapping. The driver’s telling his buddy to get ready to call 9-1-1.”
“They’ve stopped again and getting out of the truck. They’re both walking right toward us! No, they’re just going to the back of the truck to grab more packages.”
“I hope that’s their last delivery on this block. Shit, they stopped again!”
Nolan continued to cry as we crossed Main Street, and just like that, his tears just stopped as we got about three blocks from our house. He was calmer and walked the rest of the way as if nothing had happened. I’m always happy to see our house when I come back from somewhere, but it looked really damn good as we walked up the driveway. I also was very grateful not to see someone from Child Protective Services or a police car pull up and an officer at the front door wanting to ask me a few questions.
Nolan’s behaviors have created unwanted attention for us in the past. We bought tickets to see Billy Joel in the spring of 2015 in Minneapolis, and we were staying at a downtown hotel. Nolan had been very boisterous in the hotel lobby while we were checking in. Cindy was parking the car after we’d taken our luggage to our room when suddenly there was a knock on the door. Two hotel employees were responding to a concern or a complaint about Nolan and wanted to investigate. I let them in, patiently explained that my son had Autism, and showed them that Nolan was in no danger. I also wanted to give them both atomic wedgies until they told me the name of the person who’d reported us, but I really wanted to see Billy Joel and we had nowhere else to stay.
Cindy had a more harrowing experience a few years ago. Nolan needed to use the bathroom, so Cindy pulled into a gas station in a small town along Interstate 90. He was having a very difficult time, and his actions caught the attention of someone working in a back office. The next thing Cindy knew, a local law enforcement official had pulled up and entered the store. He never approached Cindy, but he stayed in the store long enough to let her know he was watching. Needless to say, she hasn’t returned to that gas station since.
Cindy and I have found that while a lot of people are pretty understanding, there still are some who give us the stink-eye or quizzical looks from time to time when Nolan acts up in public. We’ve both faced just about every situation imaginable when it comes to his behaviors. I’d like to think we’ve handled most of them very well. But sometimes I can’t help but wish Barbara Eden of “I Dream of Jeannie” fame would appear, cross her arms and blink Nolan and I to the safety of our living room. Thursday was one of those days for me.
As many people as there are who know about the challenges that we face every day, there always will be people who might not understand, or they simply won’t want to understand. And we’ll always have to be mindful of that.