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Seeing how Autism unites us

On Sunday, I showed off these photographs of Nolan that were Cindy’s Mother’s Day present. I also shared that they were taken by a high school senior who I have absolutely no doubt will be very successful no matter which career path he chooses to follow.

But, as I heard Paul Harvey’s voice blaring out of my parents’ AM radio countless times in the 1970s and early 1980s, now you’re going to hear the rest of the story.

The photographs were taken on a Saturday in April at a park located along a busy state highway. It’s the same place at which the pictures for our blog’s homepage were taken in November 2019, but Nolan had not been back there since. It was the kind of day that he would have much rather remained planted in the backseat of my car with dad being his chauffer and driving until the needle hit ‘E.’ He was tentative as we exited the car and met the young man in the park. We sat on a bench for a couple minutes, and then Nolan took my arm and began pulling me around the park.

Meanwhile, the young man remained very patient. He snapped a few pictures. He showed Nolan one of the photographs he’d taken of him and asked, “Who is that?”, to which Nolan pointed at the image on the camera. By this time, Nolan had relaxed enough to climb onto the small stage and the young man snapped some more pictures. And when Nolan let out one of his slow, steady yells that 99.5 percent of the time translates to “I have to pee – now!”, the young man assured me he’d gotten some really good shots over the course of maybe 15 minutes, and we all went on our way.

The seeds for what’s probably the best gift I ever will give Cindy were planted a little more than seven years ago. The young man and his family had moved to town from a neighboring city. His younger brother, like Nolan, had Autism, and they were in the same elementary school special education classroom. One day, I struck up a conversation with his mother as we waited to pick up our sons. Those conversations – about early-morning wakeups, meltdowns, how our sons are doing in school – eventually became a regular occurrence. They’re still happening today now that our boys are high school students.

When you find another person who lives, breathes, and understands Autism – its incredible highs and lows, the frustrations and fears that make parents feel like they’ve swallowed a boulder – you call them “friend” and realize that you’re both part of a special club that doesn’t require monthly dues and a secret handshake. It really is like “Cheers” – you want to be where you can see our troubles are all the same.

Cindy and I started this blog with the goal of allowing people to see what life is like having a teenage son who has Autism and is nonverbal. I’d like to believe our weekly posts over the last 18 months have given you a pretty accurate picture of what a day or a week in the life of the Bey family looks like. But there’s no way you can truly understand everything unless it’s a part of your daily life.

I wondered after Nolan’s diagnosis in 2008 if I ever would find anyone who understood how scared and confused I was about what lay ahead. The responses I received from people who I told that Nolan had Autism ranged from pity (“Oh, no! I’m so sorry!”) to ignorance (“Oh, don’t worry. He’ll outgrow it.”) to “Are you *#*@&$! kidding me???” (“Oh, he’s Rain Man! Everybody loves Rain Man!”).

But over time, Cindy and I found others like us who faced the same challenges we did and “got it.”

We were invited in 2009 to join a support group through a local hospital for parents of children with Autism. We became friendly with a few of the couples. We went to get-togethers at each other’s houses, and our sons went to each other’s birthday parties when they were younger. Pre-pandemic, three of the mothers and I spoke every year to students of an early childhood class at a local technical college. After awhile, those presentations were about the only time we’d see each other all year. Yet oftentimes we’d pick up right where we’d left off the year before as though it had only been a week since we’d last gotten together.

Cindy found out a few years ago when we registered Nolan for adaptive baseball through the local YMCA that she had worked with one of the other moms at a local pizza joint when they both were in high school. She and her husband have three sons with Autism, and she and Cindy always swap stories about the latest challenges our respective households are facing during the too-infrequent times they’re able to get together.

Over the last year and a half, I’ve discovered and joined two Facebook groups that cater to fathers who have sons and/or daughters with Autism. They’ve both been gracious enough to allow me to share my blog entries, which I appreciate more than I can say. But I also really appreciate reading about their kids’ triumphs. And even though I don’t always know how to respond to a father who is facing a difficult time, I’d want him to know I understand and would buy him a beer or two if I could (Remember, I do live in Wisconsin. It’s as much a part of our state as its motto, “Forward.”).

And then there’s the young photographer’s family, to whom I am very grateful for their friendship. I look forward to my nearly daily talks with his mom while we wait for the paraprofessionals to bring out her youngest son and Nolan at the end of the school day. It’s how I found out her oldest son, who from what I’ve seen is an incredible big brother, is a wizard with a camera. I couldn’t have chosen anyone better to

It doesn’t happen very often, but when I try to picture what a life without having a son with Autism would be like, I just can’t see it. Maybe Cindy and I are “misfit parents,” so to speak, but it’s a moniker I wear proudly. I’d like to think there are other parents who feel the same way.

Maybe we all come from different backgrounds, and the degree of problems we face varies. But Autism, and the love we feel for our kids, unites us all.

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