Autism – Unexpected Milestone

Disabilities do not diminish the capacity to love or be loved. I often think those who face the challenges that come with disabilities, can have a greater understanding of love and acceptance than those without them. Perhaps we are the disabled when it comes to matters of the heart . . . 

This particular shoebox memory was written late into the night following an unexpected milestone in my son’s life. 

He is a good man; he will always be a good man. I can see that so very clearly. His disabilities have become his abilities. They have helped form this perfection I see before me. I thank God for him. I can’t help wishing I could hold on to him forever, but now I think I can let go just a little.

I never doubted this day would come, but I wasn’t expecting it just yet. He lives in an autistic world of his own, right along the borders of mine. The world expects a social reciprocity he’s not yet able to fully give, the world expects certain behaviors and conformity he may never be able to grasp. It’s a world he is slowly beginning to explore.

When the time came, he wasn’t the nervous one, that was me. She wasn’t the nervous one either, that was her mother. He waited patiently while her mother unloaded the wheelchair and helped her buckle in. He noticed she hadn’t a jacket and made certain to let her mother know if she caught a chill he would gladly give her his.

We may have embarrassed them just a bit by taking the picture; you would have thought it was a prom instead of a date at the mall. Neither of them will ever go to a prom though, and this was not simply their first date together, it was the first date for both of them.

He is eighteen, she is sixteen I believe, I was so excited I neglected to ask. I had to fight back tears as I watched them reach the top of ramp and disappear into the mall. They were off to see a movie and have a bite to eat. They planned to take a picture in the photo booth. I wondered how they would work it out, her strapped in a wheelchair and he a bit on the awkward and clumsy side now and then. I prayed they would have fun. I prayed they would be safe.

I worried they would be treated unkindly by the cool kids we passed by as we left. He is very much the target on his own and I’m certain she’s had her fair share of the ugliness this world has to offer. It was my hope the two together would remove the proverbial target which tempts people to shoot nasty things their way.

It was a month to the day they first met. Both students in a program to help special needs kids . . . my apologies, young adults, find jobs and gain work experience. Life experience really. When she wheeled her way into the room the only one to make eye contact with her was the one boy who rarely makes eye contact with anyone My boy. He was seated at the end of the first row; she maneuvered her chair next to him, the best spot in the house.

He smiled at her, I’m not sure if she smiled back, I couldn’t see. She seemed to look around, as if trying to catch someone’s attention, perhaps simply to say hello. Most pretended they didn’t see, some just obviously ignored her. He noticed. He waited until she looked his way again and told her he thought her wheelchair was nice. I’m sure she smiled because I saw a smile light itself upon his face.

They began to talk, listening when it was time to listen, talking when it was time to talk. He was called to the front of the room to pick his job; he carefully maneuvered himself around her chair and lumbered up to the front of the room. He could hardly contain his excitement; he received the job he’d so badly wanted. He returned to his seat with twinkling eyes. Literally twinkling. She said she would like to work there too, he suggested she ask if there were any other positions available. She nodded her head and they said goodbye. “It was nice to meet you, maybe I’ll see you again sometime.” he said. She nodded, this time I did see her smile.

It was a toy store, the job he chose. He’d been working for three weeks when they met again. She’d requested a position at the toy store as he’d suggested. Neither knew they worked together until she missed a day of work and had to make it up with a different shift, his shift.

He wasn’t sure at first who asked who out; he later said he remembered it was she who suggested doing something together when the weekend came. He came home from work that evening and told me something strange had happened. I was almost alarmed, but by the look on his face the feeling turned quickly to curiosity. He said he met someone at work and, well, they sort of had a date.

I was more than a bit taken aback. Granted, he was eighteen years old, but I’d only recently begun processing the many emotions accompanying the achievements in life he’d recently made. He’d begun to ride the city bus on his own and was a working man. Now, he tells me he has a date. I fought off a fit of schoolgirl giggles and mommy tears. I managed to hold it together enough to ask what they had planned.

They’d decided to take a photo in the photo booth at the mall. I asked if they talked about doing anything else . . . nope. Just the photo booth. Such innocence is a welcome respite from the real world. He said goodnight like it was any other night and went off to bed, my tears fell and the giggles escaped before the door clicked shut.

Before the end of the week, after a couple of phone calls and a few well placed suggestions, a movie and a bite to eat was decided on. They would visit shops in the mall and talk. Saturday came too quickly for me. I hadn’t realized he was already dressed for his night out when he came to me, I told him to go get changed for his date. He didn’t quite understand the importance of slightly more polished attire. We settled on a pair of nice, muted black and gray cargo pants and a black tee with a dragon on it, his favorite. He combed his thick, long hair back into a ponytail and sprayed on his best smelling deodorant. I even got him to brush his teeth. He decided to forgo the shave; we’re still working on that one.

I imagine it may be hard for others to imagine the importance of these seemingly ordinary and perhaps even mundane moments, but to me they were anything but ordinary and far from mundane. There was a time I wondered if he would ever have a friend, and here he was readying for his first date.

The time to go was drawing closer with each beat of my heart. I saw the first glimpse of nerves showing in his eyes. He assured me he was fine. We arrived at the mall just as her mother was preparing the wheelchair he’d complimented his date on only a month before.

Her mother had the same look in her eyes I know I must have had in mine. I imagine she wondered if this day would come for her daughter just as I wondered if it would for my son. I was so lost in the moment I forgot her name as soon as she introduced herself. We talked for a time after they left us to ourselves and our emotions. It was a relief to see she felt as I did. She asked me about him, I asked her about her daughter. I felt comfort seeing the small tears forming at the corners of her eyes, I wasn’t alone.

I spent the next hours talking to my husband about how surreal the whole thing was. If I wasn’t saying, “I can’t believe he is on a date right now”, he was saying it. It consumed our thoughts and our conversation. We were already back at the mall when he called at nine o’clock. “The date is over.” he said. As we pulled up to he curbside, her mom was already helping her into the car; we listened as our son told us of their evening while she carefully placed the pieces of the chair into the trunk like she’s surely done a million times before. Somehow, I don’t think she usually did this with such a soft smile on her face.

He told us the movie was great, he said he had a hard time holding her hand like she wanted, not because of the chair though; he said it just doesn’t seem like a natural thing to do unless you are sitting down, maybe, he added. I heard her giggle from the car. He pulled out the new wallet he bought and proudly showed me each feature; the next thing from the bag was a cap gun and little plastic rounds. He’s been waiting for years to get one.

Lastly, he showed us the photo booth pictures. Four in all. He showed us which one she liked best even though her hair was back in a braid and she wasn’t happy with the way she looked. He said he thought she looked just fine though, another giggle floated from the open window of the car. I couldn’t help but imagine how he helped her from the chair to the booth and back. He said, “Well, goodnight.” and began walking from the car. I carefully suggested he say goodbye to his date before making his exit.

He went to the window, said goodnight and turned to go. Another giggle is all I heard after that. We said our goodbyes to her mother; I knew she was anxious to talk to her little girl about her first date. We walked slowly back to our own car. Further details were few, I took what I could get, once again fighting off tears and the urge to giggle just a little.

He said they’d had fun, he said they were quite opposite. He didn’t like the stores she wanted to visit and she didn’t like the ones he wanted to visit. He didn’t understand how she could ask him to leave a store he enjoyed and then ask him where he wanted to go next. He said he told her the night was about her and what she wanted, so he found himself in the most girly of shops.

He said they have plans for another date and they will share their dinner break at work on Monday. I don’t know if he understands the whole concept of dating. He has referred to her as his girlfriend since she first asked him to go out. I have fear for him and I have hope for him. Such hope. I don’t know what this milestone is like for other parents, I somehow think it carries different emotions for them. Of course, I’ve no way of knowing.

I found myself staring at him this morning. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. I saw my baby and I saw the man he has become. I think part of me wanted to feel a little sad, but I’m not sad. I feel something I haven’t yet found a name for. I am so proud of him. He was a gentleman, just as he has always been. He is a good man; he will always be a good man. I can see that so very clearly. His disabilities have become his abilities. They have helped form this perfection I see before me. I thank God for him. I can’t help but wish I could hold on to him forever, but now I think I’ll let go just a little . . .

When I pulled this from the shoebox tonight, it brought tears to my eyes. Seven years have passed since his first date, there has yet to be a second. They were the perfect couple to share this experience, the rest requires more than either of them were able to understand. My son still says he is unsure if he will ever understand women, I assured him he never would. She was demanding and required more social interaction than he was able to give. When he tried to explain this to her, she called him names and threatened to run him over with her wheelchair.

Regardless of how the story ended, this was a monumental milestone I will never forget.

Crystal R. Cook

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