One of Sam’s first speech therapists missed many scheduled home sessions. Early childhood programs usually begin in the home for toddlers who need services like Sam did. By the time I thought I should complain about her absences, however, Sam was “aging out” of the program. Once a child reaches 3 years old, education officials offer preschool along with speech and other services. Preschool offers a far richer environment to learn much more and much faster — as long as your child is ready to learn that way. Sam went to preschool where another speech therapist was assigned to work with him. She kept her schedule.

I’ve been thinking a lot about our family’s first autism experiences as Shahla and I put the finishing touches on our book. Given what could have been for our family 30 years ago, I feel really lucky.

It’s odd to call it lucky that Sam missed so many of his first speech therapy sessions. I didn’t consider it lucky back then. Sam had just been diagnosed. There was a lot of work to do. The therapist wasn’t doing her part of the work.

Yet, when she did keep her appointments, they were powerful. She took time to explain to me what she was doing as she worked with Sam. She wanted me to understand and keep things going when she wasn’t around. Since she missed so many of her appointments, I pivoted toward that goal pretty fast. (Honestly, I think she was battling depression.) I wasn’t a trained speech therapist. But I was soon thinking about Sam’s speech development all the time and responding to him in those thousand little moments you have every day with your child.

It took a while to see how lucky that was.

Sam was in primary school when I met Shahla. Shahla also helped with his progress, but that, too, took a while for me to see. There was still a lot of work to do and I was always trying to line up help. Shahla and I would chat occasionally about how things were going. I would share a story of some happening, often whatever was vexing us at the time and she would explain what was going on behind the curtain. Those little conversations were actually a deep dive for me. I understood better what was happening with Sam and where to go next — just as his wayward speech therapist was trying to show us.

We were learning to work smarter, not just harder, of course. But there was something else.

Sam couldn’t be forced or coerced — not that we wanted to work that way. Like many children with autism, in my opinion, the ways that he protected himself from the outside world were effective and strong. Still, we made progress. His best outcomes came after we approached things in a straightforward way with his full participation. The better we got at being deliberate, respectful, and intentional, the more momentum we created.

Even though Sam is a grown-ass man, we still seize the small moments to make a difference. I’ve been working at home for a while now, and that’s come with more opportunities for those small moments. With Mark gone and both Sam and I working full-time for the past decade, we didn’t have many. These days, we can chat over breakfast or lunch (or both) before Sam heads to work. Like every young adult, Sam sometimes turns his adult mind back to childhood experiences and tries to make sense of them. I’m glad to be here as he puzzles through all that. I’d like to think he’s puzzling through more because of these opportunities.

These days, he’s also been thinking a lot about why alarm bells bothered him so much when he was in elementary school. I told him he wasn’t alone, that no one likes that sound. That was a revelation to him, since apparently the rest of us hide that aversion so well. But he’s really wrestling with this, breaking things down into the science of sound, analyzing sound waves, and figuring how to manipulate them. He wants to make his own science to help others who hate alarm bells as much as he did. Who knows? Maybe he’s got something like Temple Grandin’s squeeze machine going in his sound lab back there, ready to banish those anxiety-making monsters once and for all.

Happy progress, indeed.

 

 

This year marks my fourth year of pursuing New Year’s resolutions that are, at once, both big and little.

When I started out, I shared my first goal (not buying anything except food and to fix things, aka “No, Thank You”) with a few close friends and family members. Sharing your goals publicly usually increases your chance for success. For the second year, I straight up wrote a column in the newspaper. Honestly, that felt more like raising the stakes than getting a leg up, but it worked (“Yes, Please” to new experiences and long-held aspirations). This January, I quit Facebook in order to make 2019 the year of being more open and connected.

Over the past 12 months, I found myself being even more deliberate with treasured relationships, traveling a surprising amount in pursuit of that goal. Just like the years of “Yes, Please” and “No, Thank You,” a Facebook-free life can totally be “More Open and Connected” when it’s more deliberate.

This year’s goal is “Wear An Apron.” My son, Michael, and I talked it over on a recent Sunday together. He wanted to know what the big idea was behind the little idea.

I have two kitchen aprons. One I picked up at the farmer’s market in Sacramento because it says “California Grown” on it. The other my mother made for me out of fabric she picked up in Hawaii. They are both awesome and spark joy for me. But I nearly always forget to put them on until after I have already spilled something on myself.

My T-shirt drawer is full of shirts marked by my forgetfulness. I tell myself that they are just T-shirts, but the truth is, I am capable of better.

And that’s the thing about aprons. Some amazing person solved a common problem by inventing the apron. And other smart people figured out designs with pockets and loops and other features to help your apron serve you, whether you are in the wood shop or the kitchen or the printing press.

I told Michael when you think about the apron that way, it reminds you that most problems you experience have been solved by someone already. That wisdom, both small and large, is out there and ready to make life easier or better. It’s something your grandfather discovered long ago or is in a book or on YouTube or just one question away in a conversation with a friend.

Even when Sam was little and it seemed like no one knew anything, the wisdom was out there. I’ll forever be grateful to Kitty O. for showing me how to read articles in scientific journals. New wisdom. Right there.

All you need to do is put on that apron.

 

 

As part of their initial job training two years ago, Sam and his cohort at the WinCo warehouse received important information about when, or whether, to disclose their disability to others.

We didn’t give a lot of thought to this issue before sending Sam out into the world. We had always treated it as a need-to-know basis. Not surprisingly, outside of school and the workplace, most people don’t need to know.

The Texas Legislature passed a law effective this month that lets people with autism and other disabilities who drive to privately disclose their disability so the information comes up with their license plate. That way, a police officer or highway patrol officer knows there may be some communication challenges ahead and to take their time.

Other public encounters can benefit from some level of disclosure. On both of our cycling vacations, we didn’t lead our ice-breakers with any kind of disclosure. But our tour leaders and fellow cyclists soon figured out Sam’s autism. They watched what we did to accommodate him and followed suit. In Germany, it became a running joke with one woman that Sam tried more new foods than her persnickety husband did. We fielded a few questions on the side, but our travel companions were simply curious about our family; they weren’t prying.

One of the lessons Sam and his cohort learned during initial training was that disclosing your disability often isn’t necessary and that it also comes with some risk. “People can take advantage of you,” Sam told me. Sam’s rather risk-averse, so he’s not inclined to disclose and we’re happy to follow his lead.

The other night, I shared a travel horror story from one of my recent trips, in hopes that he might benefit from my experience. I thought if he ever got patted down, he should disclose his disability to the TSA agents.

In my latest travels, the screening machine flagged my underwire bra. I was upset that they intended to pat down my side. I insisted on a private screening, which really bugged them and the passengers behind me. The twenty-something girl behind me was obviously panicked about missing her flight. Magically, they flagged her every limb, and her crotch, and she let them pat her down everywhere, all the while she fussed at me for not complying. I was sad for her.

Sam said he’s never been patted down at the airport. (I’m patted down Every. Single. Time. Don’t tell me it’s random.)  But he had one of his own air travel horror stories that he had not told me about before.

He was in line to board the plane when the crew announced that they were going to do a bag search at the gate. Sam was caught off-guard, as I’m sure many other travelers were. (Perhaps, dear internet readers, you know what that is about and can explain in the comments below. We could only guess what it was about.) He wasn’t able to re-pack his bag quickly and other travelers were getting impatient with him. That, of course, unnerved him even more and made it harder still for him to recombobulate. A gate attendant finally had to help him.

I told him that might have been a good time to disclose his autism–not to the impatient people around him, but to the gate attendant who was helping him. I said most people might not understand why you need more time because autism is a hidden disability. They might even be embarrassed at their ignorance and impatience for not recognizing it themselves, I said, because most people are good and want to be kind to others. I told him that as you disclose to the gate attendant, the angry people would overhear it and probably change their behavior toward you, unless they are are real jerks.

Sam disagreed that it would have been a good idea to disclose, and that is his prerogative. It’s not his job to help the world not be a jerk.

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.

 

Early on during our bicycle trip in southern Italy, Sam announced a goal: he was going to try all the seafood he could. That was daring.

The first day, our trip leaders asked whether anyone in the group had food allergies or preferences that they needed to know. Sam’s preferences are idiosyncratic, but they aren’t hard to work around. It was easy enough to tell them that for welcome cocktails, “no alcohol, no bubbles” works for Sam. The bartenders seemed to enjoy the challenge putting together fun juice combinations for Sam. He also doesn’t like fresh tomatoes, although tomatoes cooked into sauces are ok. Even so, when something came out of the kitchen with a tomato or two – the Puglia region is famous for its cherry tomatoes – he was a sport about it.

But the seafood goal was something else altogether. The first time I can recall him being deliberately additive, not restrictive, about food. He studied entire menus in his quest. He picked classic Italian dishes: a plate of mussels as a starter, pasta with clam sauce for a first course, a swordfish steak for second. He picked unexpected ones, too, like seafood pizza. He was triumphant when he found octopus and potatoes for dinner at a seaside restaurant in Savalletri.

Octopus and potato, a traditional second course in southern Italy’s Puglia region

That’s his photo, by the way.

It’s hard not to be sentimental about how far he’s come. Sam was so food challenged growing up. As a preschooler, he would eat only breakfast cereal morning, noon and night. He hit his big growth spurt at age 15 and even though he was hungry, he limited his food choices and still refused meat. We came close to taking a second mortgage out on the house in order to pay for an intensive intervention program at Ohio State, but he turned a corner just in time. Given enough ketchup and Parmesan cheese, he started broadening his choices. Instead of eating the edge of the bun all around the hamburger, he ate the whole burger.

(Puglia restaurants are surely restocking their Parmesan supply now that we’re back home. But to be fair, he didn’t cover everything in Parmesan. We let him know which Italian foods didn’t lend themselves to that and he was happy to try without.)

Paige and I had our own dining wish lists, although we were never able to make good on eating tiramisu in Italy. The dessert at the end of the meal was usually the chef’s choice. Sweet semifreddi, gorgeous gelatins, mille-feuille — it was hard to get upset about that.

We didn’t expect that the choice of dessert sweets would be plentiful at breakfast, but there you have it. Italian masserias place many different cakes and crostada on their breakfast buffets.

We were cycling 20-30 miles a day. Heck, yeah, we had cake for breakfast.

 

 

Another year of equestrian Special Olympics has come and gone. Sam had an off year this year, I think in part because the regional competition had to be canceled for bad weather. He and his teammates missed some of the momentum needed in competition.

Sam remained a sportsman through the disappointments. I almost thought he wasn’t feeling it – until it was time to head back home. He was sad to leave, saying that we always have fun but the competition wasn’t what he’d hoped for. Then he added that maybe next year he would only do drill.

Sam’s been branching out as a horseman this year. For many years, he only rode English. A few years ago, he added Western events. That opened the door to barrel racing, which is a barrel of fun. This year, he added carriage driving and drill.

Sam picked out the drill music first, which brings its own kind of joy for him. He and Mal, his riding coach and drill partner, did well on their short routine, especially considering how little time they had to practice. Since no one else had a routine with such challenging moves, they were competing against themselves at state Special O. They got gold.

I understood what Sam was saying. He wanted to race alone.

There’s a moving passage in architect Nader Khalili’s memoir, Racing Alone, where he explains his internal transformation, leaving a successful practice as a high-rise architect to develop prototypes for sustainable earth architecture.

Khalili tells the story of watching his son play with his friends. They have a foot race and his son, who is smaller than the other boys, falls behind and loses. Crying, the boy tells his father that he only wants to race alone. Khalili takes his son to a quiet track and watches him, full of joy, run and run.

Our children can be such magical teachers.

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.

 

 

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.

 

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.