I went to the supermarket the other day and on my way out to my car I saw a young employee walking eagerly towards a stray shopping cart. He caught my attention because his stride was a little too coltish; his smile was a little too giddy. He was "one of ours," as my husband Ned likes to say with fondness when we spot someone who's probably autistic -- like our son, Nat.
My son Nat is severely autistic, and even though he is 22, I still get a little frisson of pride mixed with fear when I am out with him. Fear because of all the times over the years that he has erupted in public, angry and scary, over something I couldn't control -- like being in the "wrong" supermarket (he did not believe that the boutique-ish Whole Foods was a real supermarket). And of course I feel proud, too, when we're out together because first of all he is a truly happy soul, with a goofy gigantic smile. But more important, any time we are out and it goes well I feel triumphant. How many moms feel gleeful and victorious after a trip to Starbucks with their 22-year-old sons? But if Nat has asked for his brownie on his own and been understood by the barrista, score ten points for us.
So anytime I notice someone like him out in the world, I get all soft and squishy -- another of my husband's phrases. Especially if I see one of ours working somewhere. I think this goes way back to that terrible meeting at his school where I realized the team was gently coaxing us away from academic goals for Nat. The conversation around the IEP table was full of ugly gray words like "pragmatics," "training," and "voc."
But over time I adjusted to this, and eventually I took it and ran with it. Nat getting a job became as much a fixation for me as getting into college. The draconian realities of his challenges made us let go of one life for him, but I sure as hell was not budging when it came to his working. I wanted him to make his mark on the world anyway. I wanted everyone to see Nat as a real person and not some guy with a disability.
Not that he slid right into it, but he did seem to take to a job a lot easier than to school work. They started him on Meals on Wheels, to get him accustomed to the concept of going to work. As soon as he had it down - riding in the van, picking up the meals, bringing them into the person's home - he was like lightning. When a task makes sense to him, and creates order in the universe, he is the best worker around. Very few people can keep track of order and routines like Nat can. So there are certain jobs that are perfect for him. Eventually the school got him a job at a Papa Gino's pizza restaurant, assembling boxes. He learned his job so quickly that the problem became basically how to get him to stop making boxes long enough to clear a place for himself at his table. His supervisor would look in on him and find him surrounded by towers of cardboard. The restaurant offered him a second job of delivering coupons in the neighborhoods nearby, and this was his best gig yet. Nat has always been a perpetual motion machine, with long legs to match. Even as an infant he had pushed himself up from my lap on his tiny fat baby legs. Walking around a neighborhood with one defined task was a dream job for Nat.
Recently I heard that his Day Program was helping him apply for a job at a supermarket, putting away shopping carts. But, they told me, he'd have to have a job interview and pass a psychological test. There'd be a criminal background check, and a two-week trial period. "This is not playtime," the director of his Day Program told me. "This is a serious job."
So when I saw the guy like Nat putting carts away, I just had to see what he was like, and how he did the job. What were the pitfalls, what sorts of things did someone like Nat have to watch out for? I decided to test this employee, a small, subtle test. I just wanted to see what would happen if I pushed the cart over to him but then veered off to return it myself, something a little out of the ordinary.
Nothing happened, of course. He noticed me out of the corner of his eye and just let me put my cart away. He knew his job, and the store had trained him carefully. I felt really stupid on a number of levels. What was I thinking? That because this young man had a similar diagnosis to Nat, that I could interchange them? Of course not; he has a whole life too, just like Nat, and perhaps a mother who wants him to make his mark as well!
I see that I have to be careful not to take "one of ours" too far, into patronizing and trivializing. But it's tough to remember, as Nat's program director said, that this is serious, and real, even though that is exactly what I want for him. Nat is not a typical 22 year old, able to tell me to back off and give him space. I have to remember that just because he is adorable and seems young, he is absolutely an adult who loves his work.
So I guess this means I should not start shopping at his supermarket...
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