Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe

writing for parents of the bravest hearts

Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe

green writing for parents

adults with autism

Cycling close to the sun

Sam said he liked the country roads best on our family bicycling trip to southern Italy. There are 60 million olive trees in Italy and I do believe we pedaled past a hefty percentage of them.

In this photo, you can see he stopped next to an olive tree that was a thousand years old. Some of them look great. Others are succumbing to a bacteria that came over with an insect stowed away on South American-made pallets. Many of the olive groves are small, family-owned plots that produce enough to supply the family with a little more to share. (You can buy olive oil in Italy the way we buy craft beer here in the U.S.)

Sam stops for a quick drink during a backroads bicycling trip across southern Italy.

On the backroads, you can trade that ten-European-cities-in-seven-days experience for a different kind of intensity. What’s not to like when you share miles of road lined by stone walls with just the occasional tractor or Italian nonno driving his 1967 Renault Quattro to the village? The roads weren’t perfect, but Sam didn’t mind dodging the potholes. Once, along a highway, I watched him drift, ever so slightly, into the main lane so that he could cycle over the rumble strips.

On the backroads, you can catch the fragrance as you pedal by chamomile, star jasmine, ginesta (broom) or the pine trees.

Chamomile and other wildflowers along the backroads of southern Italy.

You can see a farmer having a sandwich in the shade of an olive tree. Another farmer stops picking to pass a handful of fresh figs over the wall to a fellow cyclist. Old men sit on benches in the center of the village and wish you “buongiorno!” The village center doesn’t look like it’s changed much at all in several hundred years.

Sam was ready for the routine, having gone on a similar tour last fall in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. We pedaled a good pace and still found time to relax in the swimming pool after covering 20-30 miles each day. Nobody lost anything along the way. The only real drama came the last day.  A driver honked and then turned right in front of Paige, thinking that Paige would stop (uh, NOT) and then nearly hitting her on her bike. One of the tour leaders detoured to yell at the driver. The moment was so quintessentially Italian that I couldn’t help but live vicariously through the movie she was making for me right then and there.

Sam downloaded two dictionaries before we left the U.S. and explored the language often. He always tried to order in Italian. Periodically, he also thought of things that would increase our comfort and success in living out of a suitcase for days at a time. He inspired me to start a new checklist for our next trip — when or wherever that might be. At one point, he told me he thought he could take the next tour by himself.

He probably could, but that was never a goal of these trips. Traveling brings new perspectives. We bring some of the romance home by letting the experience change the shape of our daily lives. Sam grows through travel just like the rest of us, only a little bit more. He has always cycled a little closer to the sun.

Otranto by night. Photo by Sam Wolfe.

 

First Installment

Sam’s a bona fide taxpaying citizen now. It’s a funny thing to cheer, but cheer we do — because becoming a contributing member of society is the dream of every adult, right?

When Mark died almost 12 years ago, my sister, Karen, took me practically by the hand down to the Social Security office to apply for survivor benefits for the kids. Michael and Paige were both under age 18. And eventually, Sam collected, too, because Mark was supporting him when he died.

Michael and Paige’s benefits ended the summer after they graduated high school. Sam’s benefits continued for years because he never earned enough money until he started at WinCo two years ago.

We were faithful and went back to the Social Security office to tell them that Sam got a good job and would no longer need benefits. We expected them to stop sending checks much sooner than they did.

As the checks continued to arrive, I advised Sam to save as much as he could because eventually Social Security would ask for that money back. This was not our first rodeo. Back when the agency started Sam’s benefits (it took several extra months for his to begin), no one did the math against what was already coming our way for Michael and Paige. I had no idea there were maximums or what they were for our family. And when Social Security figured it out, we owed a lot from the overpayment. It hurt, but we paid it all back.

By the time Social Security figured out earlier this year when they should have stopped sending checks to Sam, the balance due was a stunning amount of money. Sam stresses about it sometimes, but we took this as a learning opportunity.

I helped him make a repayment plan and the whole concept of budgeting is sinking in. Sam has always done a good job with his finances, but it’s not hard to do a good job when you don’t really spend much money. This time, there’s some real pressure on his earnings, and he’s figuring it out. He’s gone several months now without the safety net. And, tonight he wrote a check for his first installment to repay the overpayment.

Yep, a bona fide taxpaying citizen.

 

 

Overheard in the Wolfe House #316

Sam: What’s an ‘old-timer’?

Peggy: I think different people might use that label to describe different things. What do you think it means, Sam?

Sam: Someone who doesn’t use new technology.

Peggy: Oh yeah?

Sam: And someone who talks about the old days.

Peggy: Then I guess I’m not an old timer.

Sam: Really?

The Grand Tour

I missed the big day when the WinCo warehouse had its open house almost two years ago. Michael and Paige went with Sam, and got to see where Sam had trained as well as the spot where he works inside that massive building.

Sam will celebrate his second anniversary with the company in March. A few days ago, I took part of the day off to ride to work with him and finally get a tour of the place.

(Here’s a news story from the opening, shown in the Denton Record-Chronicle photo shown above.)

Sam’s unit unpacks small dry goods, such as shampoo and lotion, that are continuously delivered to the warehouse. They move them into bins that can be quickly accessed for shipment to stores in the region. (Sometimes he works on that repacking side, too.) They keep about 18,000 inventory bins stocked at all times. Much of the work is automated, which means he’s working with computers and all kinds of lifts and conveyors.

Once they’ve unpacked a delivery box, they throw the empty box up on a conveyor to the cardboard compactor, which was the highlight of the tour for my inner 8-year-old. The grown-up in me nearly melted watching his face light up showing me how it all worked. He is clearly enjoys his job, and is good at it — his supervisors told me as much, too.

When Sam first joined the workforce almost 15 years ago, a dear friend in the rehab department at the University of North Texas told me that Sam would learn and grow a lot on his first job. I was so grateful that he told me that, because I knew not to be surprised, and to be alert and responsive to those changes. I remember how challenged I felt entering the work force (a feeling that returns with each new job, and sometimes each new assignment, honestly), but I wouldn’t necessarily have connected to those experiences and been ready to help Sam in reinforcing his growth and understanding all of his new experiences, rather than being bewildered by them.

For example, I told him he might be surprised at how tired he would feel going from part-time to full-time work, especially such physically demanding full-time work. He was happy I shared that experience. After a few months, he was ready to advocate for himself in a powerful way: to get moved to swing shift. He knew he was not a morning person and that he needed more rest than he was able to get working day shift.

He also gained a lot more confidence in his strength. I don’t know what it is about autism, but it seems like lots of kids with autism don’t grow up with the core strength that most neuro-typical kids have. Horseback riding probably helped Sam get stronger than he was initially wired for.

But I knew WinCo put that over the top when I asked him to help me load a dryer on the back of my pickup, the kind of two-person job we had done many times over the years. I planned on taking the dryer to my girlfriend in Houston, who’d been all but wiped out by Hurricane Harvey’s flood waters. After I put down the tailgate and anchored the ramps, I turned around to see that Sam had already loaded the dryer on the dolly. He walked it all up the ramp without a word, like the grown-ass man he is.

 

Making some dust

There aren’t many horseback riding events at Chisholm Challenge where the riders go as fast as they can. Sam hasn’t been barrel racing long, but he’s got the hang of it.

There were several other riders in other classes that raced before Sam’s class. (Riders completed the course at a walk, a jog or a lope. Sam was in the loping class.) I saw more than one rider come out of the gate and go straight into their trot, so I joked with one of Sam’s coaches that he should ‘haul ass’ when they opened the gate, just like the women who gallop through the pattern in 15 seconds in the professional rodeos. She thought that was pretty funny, so she grabbed her cellphone and called her husband, another of Sam’s coaches, and told him so.

I don’t talk to Sam that way, so we were all having a good laugh. But when they opened the gate, he went for it, too. The judges threw a flag because the volunteers with the stopwatches weren’t ready.

I worried that my joke got him disqualified, but they let him go again from the rail.

He won his class with an “official” time of 0:34. He’s riding Smut, representing Born2Be Therapeutic Equestrian Center. Enjoy.

 

Internet commerce is a wild web

If Sam wrote up his tips for how to avoid getting scammed, it would read something like this.

  • Don’t read email
  • Don’t respond to texts
  • Don’t answer the phone
  • Open snail mail only after your mom nags you for a week that it’s important

And still things happen to him. I try not to hover. He’s a grown-ass man. He managed to handle something this week that would make Dave Lieber and his Watchdog Nation proud: he got a refund from a seller on eBay.

Sam is working on backing up his computers cloudlessly. It means he needs some external hard drives, and some redundancy. It’s a good project for him. One of the devices he bought for the project wasn’t the right device. He sent it back to the seller. He got proof that he sent it back and the seller received it. But the seller was very slow in refunding his money. It was a lot of money–$120 or so. He complained to eBay and then he went over to his bank to see what they could do. This is where I give a big shout-out for the power of local banks who get to know their customers, because they helped turn up the heat with PayPal. Sam announced this morning that eBay is refunding his money.

Sam said, “I was starting to think that the seller wanted to sell me the wrong item and keep my money.”

That’s an excellent demonstration of being able to take the perspective of another and act accordingly, something that is hard for people with autism to do.

I told him that eBay and other e-commerce platforms need sellers to be honest or their platform becomes irrelevant. I used to not tell Sam things like that. But, he’s getting the hang of this seeing-situations-from-another-person’s-perspective thing.

He still wants a better consumer tip sheet, and he’s got a point. When he was at the bank, he learned about “verified sellers.” In the 23 years eBay’s been around, I think I’ve bought two things on that platform. I really have no idea. I’ve got my homework for the week.

And, if anyone has good consumer tips about eBay, please leave them in the comments below.

Stupid fear

Sam almost didn’t get to go to the State Fair of Texas this year. I enjoy the fair but, honestly, I wouldn’t miss it if a year or two went by without a trip.

I think Sam likes that every time we go we check out something new, but we also do some of the same things: have a Fletcher’s corn dog, ride the carousel, stop by the show barn to see a hundred different kinds of rabbits or goats or whatever is running that weekend, sit on a tractor and remember the days on the farm.

Michael and his fiancee, Holly, came up from Austin to go to the fair last weekend, so Sam had a chance to go. I told Michael to be sure to take Sam by the auto show and have him get behind the wheel of a Chevy Bolt. Mission accomplished there. Sam’s going to be buying a new car in a few years and he needs lots of opportunities to switch from abstract and into concrete ways of thinking about that.

One thing that hasn’t been predictable about going to the fair is the train ride. Sam likes taking rail to the fair. It would seem predictable, but it’s not. Denton’s A-train shuts down early on Saturdays. Dallas runs extra DART trains on unpublished schedules for fair crowds. Michael and Holly planned to drive home to Austin from the fair. They were having fun and wanted to stay past the last train home to Denton, so I agreed to pick Sam up at the end of DART’s green line in Carrollton.

Sam got on a run that wasn’t on the posted schedule. He had to get off several stations early and wait for another train. He called Michael and then called me. Michael was unnerved. He didn’t know why Sam got off the train, he just knew someone “told him” to get off. Michael called me. Was Sam in trouble? Was he being bullied? Was he ok? I got a key piece of information from Sam: it was the end of the line for that special run. Sam was ok.

On the drive back to Denton, I told Sam it’s important sometimes to tell people why something was happening. Not knowing the “why” can lead to worries.

For a while, our conversation went on a tangent about worst case scenarios for being bullied on the train, for which Sam already had a good plan. He’s been bullied enough in his life that he knows to prepare or troubleshoot, and that’s just heart-breaking.

Then we switched to talking about taking the perspective of others. Sam knows that people are sometimes scared of him because he’s different.

I asked, but he had forgotten when that had happened to him back at North Central Texas College. A female classmate befriended him over several weeks and then freaked out when he asked her if she wanted to go get some lunch. (Isn’t that what college friends do? Or have times changed that much?) A school official told Sam that the classmate came to them for help. They told him to stay away from her. I was stunned that they viewed her as more vulnerable than him. I still am.

And yet, this is what he said about riding the train, or hanging with friends, or otherwise being out in public:

“I don’t ever want someone to be afraid of me.”

America, you might work on that. You are really stupid afraid these days.

No going back

Sam lost his sunglasses in Germany.

There wasn’t anything remarkable about the sunglasses themselves. They were a pair of sunglasses that had been lying around the house for years, a little scratched, but durable both in their purpose and their terrific ability to avoid getting lost the way most sunglasses do.

Sam, myself, Michael and Paige on the Lake Constance bike trail from Bregenz, Austria, to Lindau, Germany.

The loss, though, became a valuable lesson for our family.

I knew the trip would challenge us, biking more than 150 kilometers over the course of five days. At the end of the first day’s two-hour ride, Sam turned to us and said he was confident that he had trained enough for the trip.

He had been a little nervous about it, but we set out on hourlong rides several times a week in the months before. Inspired by Michael, he also hooked his bike up to a wind trainer for regular spins.

The third day, our second full day of riding, set out as our longest ride of the week. We left our hotel in Lindau to cycle to our next hotel in Uberlingen. Most of the people in the riding group took the shortcut, taking the ferry from Friedrichshafen to Meersburg to finish the ride. We met the group and told the tour leaders that we wanted to cycle through the orchards and vineyards rather than ride the ferry.

Lake Constance

About halfway to Meersburg, we stopped to refill our water bottles and have a snack. Sam asked where his sunglasses were. He thought someone had grabbed them for him in Friedrichshafen, where we all took a bathroom break.

No one had. Sam asked if we could go back and get them. Michael told him, “Sam, there’s no going back. We’re already pretty far from Friedrichshafen, and we’re riding 40 kilometers today.”

Sam protested briefly, but got back on his bike and plowed ahead. When we arrived at Meersburg for lunch, he was still upset. We sat at a table beside the lake and Sam tried to explain. It wasn’t going well and people were starting to stare. I invited Sam to take a walk with me to the water’s edge so he could collect his thoughts and I could make more room for listening.

There was another family walking on the little beach with their German shepherd. They threw sticks into the waves. The dog wouldn’t venture past depths over its head, but it worked hard to bring back every throw.

Eventually, Sam was able to collect his thoughts.

He understood that sometimes we help him out as a trade-off, to get things moving faster, especially when being slow is risky. But when he is responsible for himself, “I need more time,” he said. And he said that it was clear to him on this type of excursion, a person has to be responsible for themselves.

Most of us human beings don’t have enough self-awareness to assess these kinds of scenarios, let alone ask simply and directly for the fix. Sam constantly amazes me with this gift of his.

We went back to the table and announced the findings. We all agreed we could and should slow down our transitions. Paige asked Sam about a checklist. What if each of us went through a checklist, like an airline pilot, before we cycled on? The process helped us slow down for Sam and, at one point, also kept me from losing my cycling gloves. We often were the last ones of the cycling group to leave, but because we rode fast, it all worked out in the end.

I told Paige later that day that I did have a secret hope that the trip would stretch the family, although I wasn’t quite sure how. I hoped we wouldn’t be miserable, but I didn’t worry about it either.

Learned helplessness does someone like Sam no service at all, and some of that was coming from our habits to take shortcuts and speed things up. He deserved more from us. We learned we could step back, let some conflict points rise up and not freak out. After all, Sam is a grown-ass man.

 

Ok, Germany, alles klar

The kids and I just finished a week of bicycling in the Bodensee region of Germany, Austria and Switzerland Saturday, arriving home Sunday night.

We had a wonderful time. There was good wine, great cheese, and lots of beer, too. This is the second time I’ve explored another country by pedaling the backroads with a small cycling tour. I cannot recommend the experience enough. Paige and I got to know Ireland while cycling the “Wild Atlantic Way” last year. Michael and Sam joined us this year cycling through Alpine farming villages and along the shores of Lake Constance.

We did our best to speak German to the locals, respect the rules of the road and be all-around good representatives of our country. We tried not to be obnoxious Americans, but that’s harder than you think. We each had our moment (well, except maybe Paige) where we stepped in it at least once.

My chance came the second day of riding. It didn’t take long to realize that bicycling is king in Germany. So many people in Germany ride themselves that they see and respect cyclists when they are driving. But they also are efficient people. Leave a gap in your cycling group and they will fill it in the roundabout. Our first big run through a traffic-filled roundabout, I left a gap but kept going trying to catch up to the group. A driver took my hesitation as his turn to enter, but braked at the last second (thank goodness). As I pedaled on through, he yelled at me in German. I tried to give him “I’m sorry, I’m from out of town” smile, but I don’t know if those are universally understood.

Michael’s turn came the third day of riding. We parked our bikes at the bottom of the hill and hiked up to Meersburg Castle. We bought admission tickets for a self-guided tour and managed to enter the first room just as a special guided tour began. We stood politely for several minutes as the tour guide spoke much German very fast. We felt it would be rude to move through before the group was ready to move. But when we did, one of the ladies on the tour stepped in front of Michael and eagerly spoke even more German to him. We were flattered she thought we were so fluent. I again tried to flash that “I’m sorry, we’re from out of town” smile. The tour guide took pity and said the woman wanted us to know that they had paid extra for the guided tour and we didn’t. Could we please hang back for just a bit? After they moved to the third room, we were able to push on past, which was fine, we wanted to get to the room with all the armor displays anyways.

Sam’s turn came the fourth day. It scared me a little bit. We rode to Reichenau Island and stopped for lunch at a popular roadside restaurant (for what did turn out to be the best fish we ever had). Many other cyclists had the same notion. It was hard to find a place to park your bike out of the way.

Sam had come so far on this tour, taking charge of his gear and following the rules of group rides and the road. He was trying to park his bike tight in, the way a good German cyclist would. He didn’t notice that he was maneuvering in a way that kept another fellow waiting as he was trying to extract his bike and leave. I pointed it out, and Sam got out of the way, but apparently not fast enough. The man decided we were annoying tourists and made a move that would have gotten him punched in the face in the U.S. – he got in front of Sam and stood quite close without moving, expecting Sam to return his reproving eye contact. I held my breath. Sam was tired from our ride. He was fiddling with his helmet and looking at the ground, completely unaware of the confrontational stance in front of him. The guy didn’t know what to do, so he left, muttering German curse words the whole way.

God bless autism.

 

Paige helping me hold photo of Mark and me on Lake Constance from summer 1997, when the Dallas Symphony launched its European tour at the festival in Bregenz.

Gentlemen, start your engines

Sam has had a lot of car trouble lately. He has been driving a 2001 Toyota Corolla that he bought used 10 years ago.

This little car’s early life was in Corpus Christi, which probably means some hard miles in salt air. (We made sure it wasn’t ever flooded before we bought it.) The plastic parts have gotten so brittle, it’s just a matter of time.

Our first big tap on the shoulder was on the way to State Special Olympics a month ago. We blew a tire. Now, that’s no big deal, as long as you can keep your wits about you as you put that little donut of a wheel on your car along the highway in a strange city long after dark. But after we got two new front tires at the tire shop, the car wouldn’t start. For whatever reason, the bushing to the shifter cable broke while the car was up on the rack. We may have hobbled to the tire shop, but we had to be towed to the dealer for that repair.

Fun times.

On Friday, we got another big tap on the shoulder when Sam headed out to work. Turn the key and nothing, nada, zilch. He’d already changed the battery in January. From the problem in Bryan, I knew it wasn’t the shifter cable. And from my own truck’s problem last month, I knew it wasn’t the starter.

Since we would have had to pay for a tow, it was worth the gamble on replacing the ignition switch. Sam inherited his father’s talent for fixing things and, for whatever reason, I’m a fair troubleshooter. It took a few hours, but we knew we’d identified the problem when we compared the old and new switches. The old one had the telltale signs of an electrical short. And one of its three plastic brackets had broken off, likely setting off the slow chain reaction that jostled its way into oblivion.

I have been coaching Sam for months about planning to buy a new, or new-to-him, vehicle. Some of the plastic parts he’s had to replace on the car don’t have anything to do with its overall reliability, but many others do.

People without reliable transportation risk losing their jobs. Our local transit authority, DCTA, stunningly, has zero bus service to Denton’s industrial park where Sam and thousands of other Denton residents work.

I do not know why this is, but I’ll put that on my to-do list at work. (I’m a reporter for the Denton Record-Chronicle.)

Sam is reluctant to retire his car yet, and I can respect that. It still runs well overall. He hasn’t had a repair that’s cost as much as a new car payment.

After Sam finished replacing the ignition switch, the car cranked its Toyota self. He got a big grin on his face. For about $75 he bought himself more time.

For now.