I worried about my autistic son, Matthew. But I worried even more about what other people thought.
- Posted on Sep 29, 2010
The coffee klatch at Jean's house was nothing unusual. In the year that we'd lived in this house she'd hosted midmorning get-togethers for the neighborhood women before—a chance for everybody to chat, to trade recipes and orthodontists recommendations, to brag a little about their kids. The only thing strange was that she had invited me.
"That's great," said my husband, Peter, when I told him. "It means Jean and the others are reaching out. They want to get to know you."
"I don't think I can go," I said.
Peter's face clouded with concern. "You should do this," he said.
"But what will I say about Matthew?"
Matthew was our 10-year-old son. Our autistic son. And that was the problem. He lived in a different world, a world that was hard for others to understand. I tried to keep an eye on him. But he'd go off down the street on his own sometimes. After all, he was a boy. I always had a quick apology ready in case he did something outlandish.
Sometimes it was a question about poisonous plants that he'd ask a neighbor. A lady was pruning her roses and the next thing she knew a 10-year-old boy with an intense gaze was asking her how many people would die if they ate the leaves on her prized American Beauty. Another time he rang the buzzer of our neighbors next door and explained that he was delivering their groceries—except it was nine o'clock at night and he had no groceries.
Lately he had taken to mowing our lawn every day. Now it looked like a putting green. Other mothers drove by. What on earth must they be thinking? That we were all crazy? Lord, I prayed, why did you make autism so hard to explain?
How could I explain that Matthew was sweet and thoughtful and imaginative? He loved balloons, loved watching them float up to the sky. But even that was not without peril. Matthew would liberate any balloon if he could. Just a couple days ago a neighbor had called to complain that he'd untied all the balloons on her mailbox that were there for her son's birthday party. I didn't even bother to explain. Just rushed to the store to buy some replacements.
I retreated. I spent more and more time by myself. I didn't want to go to any potluck dinners with my new neighbors or midmorning coffee klatches. I could never reciprocate. No telling what Matthew would say or do with any kids who came over. Even his younger brother Andrew had become shyer since we'd moved to this new neighborhood.
"Andy, why don't you invite some friends over?" I asked him one afternoon.
"It's just too hard," he said. "I hate it when they ask questions about Matthew."
I knew how he felt. It hurt to have Matthew singled out. And I didn't want to be hurt anymore. So I withdrew.
"I can't go to the coffee klatch," I told Peter. "They'll confront me about Matthew and the balloons or why he mows our lawn every day. It'll be something."
"Just go," Peter insisted. "They're just trying to be neighborly."
All right, I thought. Just this once. But it won't go well.
I walked into Jean's house, clutching a bouquet of flowers like a peace offering. The women were gathered around a granite-topped kitchen counter, drinking coffee and eating muffins. We talked about kitchen remodeling, interior decorating, the struggle to find a dependable babysitter, summer vacation plans. On the outside I looked calm, but inside my stomach was churning like a washing machine. They're going to tell me that Matthew caused another problem. They're going to sit me down and have a conference.
An hour of small talk and the group broke up. I sagged with relief and headed toward the door. Just then one of the neighbors, Sarah, called to me. "How is Matthew doing?" she asked.
I froze. "A work in progress," I managed to joke. "Let me know if he bothers you." I hustled out the door. Sarah followed me.
"It must be hard," she said, taking my arm. There was no escape. I sat down with her on the porch. All at once it came out: yes, he was autistic. Yes, it was a shock when we found out. Yes, it was hard to understand. No, he couldn't attend the local public school. He was going to an area school for children with special needs, and perhaps to a private school for autistic kids someday if he progressed.
A couple of the other women joined us. We talked about autism in general and what parents could do to reach autistic children. One woman said she had a cousin with an autistic child. Another once had an autistic boy in her Sunday school class. When we talked about the balloons and the fascination with poisonous plants, they didn't judge me, especially not now when we had talked so freely. They wanted to understand. "Is there anything we can do?" Sarah asked.
"If you could keep an eye out for him. He likes talking to gardeners. Sometimes he'll surprise people in their yards. There was this lady clipping her roses…" I stopped myself. But, no, these women wouldn't make fun of him. They were listening. "He's very interested in gardens. That's why he mows our lawn so often."
"Maybe he could mow my lawn sometime," Sarah offered.
"Or mine," said another woman.
"I don't know," I said. "Maybe."
I came home from that gathering and collapsed on the couch. For the past few months, for the past few years really, I'd become more and more wary of people. Ever since we moved into the neighborhood I'd refused to let myself get involved. I didn't want to get hurt, or for Matthew to be treated unfairly. But maybe I'd had it all wrong. My neighbors wanted to help, and I was convinced God had put them next door for that very reason. Thank you, I prayed that night, for helping others to understand.
True to their word, Sarah and Jean and the others kept an eye out for Matthew. Balloon disappearances were no longer treated like major crimes. As Matthew got older, they hired him to mow their lawns and trim their hedges, giving him the experience of earning his own money. Maybe it takes a neighborhood to raise a child. But you have to open yourself up to trust your neighbors—and trust God in the way he answers prayers.
Now Matthew's 19, and he goes to a special boarding school for autistic kids and other kids with special needs, where he can work further on his social skills in a supportive environment. Not long ago he was home for a two-week vacation. When he left, every lawn in the neighborhood was mowed, every weed was whacked and every leaf was blown and stowed for recycling. It was his way of saying thanks for the support—for the love, really—that our neighbors have given. And if a few balloons disappeared around here during those two weeks, I doubt anyone minded.