I have to admit that Sam surprised me a little when he came home from work one night and said that social distancing was hard. He’s always kept a healthy distance from others.
But I could understand, too. People are buying a crazy amount of stuff in the grocery store. He and his co-workers are really hopping to keep up.
I asked him whether he remembered his perfect attendance in middle school. He got a special award for never missing a day from sixth through eighth grade. I told him that by middle school he’d gotten so good at keeping his distance from others that he never was close enough to get the germs. He had a good laugh about that.
Sam didn’t like to be held as an infant or toddler. At first, it was hard to figure out how to comfort a child who couldn’t stand to be hugged, or touched, or sung to. Eventually, we discovered things that worked and, as he grew and changed, discovered even more.
As an adult, Sam has a way of attending in a conversation – a sort of standing up straight, full soldier attention to your presence – that even if he never shakes your hand, or hugs you, or even really makes good eye contact, you somehow know that he is truly present. It’s such a gift to have learned that from him.
And when you are being present, you know when the other person is present and responsive to you, too. When I’m out running or walking with the dog, or making a brief trip to the grocery store, people are doing what Sam does (although maybe with a little more eye contact) as they reach out to chat these days and that doesn’t feel socially distant at all.
It’s in the moment, present, responsive.
I hope it never goes away.
Peggy (driving by local art studio): Oh, look, you can see them preparing for the next class. Those classes can be fun. It will be like being in Mrs. Ruestmann’s class again for you.
Sam (absolutely deadpan): I’m bad at art.
As important as dancing is to Sam’s social life, I’m a little surprised that I haven’t blogged much about it before.
Last weekend, Michael and Holly got married. Sam was the usher. He enjoyed dressing the part and hanging with the groomsmen, but I think he looked forward most to the dancing. During the reception, the DJ spun a wide variety for us. We two-stepped and did the mambo to a salsa tune, and more.
The television show, Dancing with the Stars, was Sam’s favorite for the longest time and he would try to do some of the moves when he thought I was out of the room.
I don’t know how I stumbled on the east coast swing dance club in town, but after I did, I planted the seed that he could join and learn more. It took a little while for Sam to warm up to the idea. After he’d gone once or twice, I asked Michael and Holly to go with him once and make sure everything was ok. (It was.) Over time, I’d hear from neighbors, friends and acquaintances about how well he was coming along. He goes at least twice a month, including asking off work for the Friday night dance that includes some extra lessons.
Michael and Holly had a dollar dance over several tunes during the reception last Saturday. Sam queued up twice with ten-spots to dance with Holly. I was ready with the video for the second dance, but as you can see, the kids got silly and they were upstaged a wee bit.
After the DJ’s “last dance” call, they had just one more: Bruno Mars’ Uptown Funk. It’s just about Sam’s favorite tune of all time. The kids all got in a circle and started their dance-off. Sam was second in the ring, and the crowd just lost it when he entered and danced his moves. There is video out there in the wild somewhere, y’all, but I don’t have it. (If it surfaces and I can publish it, it will be here. I’m not sure the official wedding videographer got there in time.)
Let there be dancing.
Peggy (to Sam, dressing for the wedding): Your suit is hanging in the closet.
Teresa: What shoes are you wearing?
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.)
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.
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.
The same wet weather that makes trail races around Grapevine Lake too soft and too muddy makes running the grasslands just right. Sand for horses packs nicely after a good rain. Some horses don’t like the sound of your approaching footsteps, no matter how much you slow down. Trail runners are a smart bunch and share good advice with each other, and that’s how I knew to fuel up at the last stop. But they also sometimes forget to follow directions instead of the runner in front of them. Follow the blue flags is especially important when the trail comes with a bypass that makes the race longer than advertised. Missing birdsong makes the grasslands eerie quiet and plays mind games and makes you think
there’s a cougar watching. Having more than one goal for finishing grasslands is good. Recently, I decided that not falling down is a good goal. Mission accomplished.
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.
Two years ago, after writing a news story about a few of our clever readers and what they learned achieving their New Year’s resolutions, I did mine differently. A year into my own experiment, I had learned so much that I shared it in a column.
That first goal to not buy anything (with reasonable exceptions for food and fixing things) reinforced a simpler, more sustainable life. My next resolution, “Yes, please,” was meant to be this year’s yang to last year’s yin of “no, thank you.”
The idea wasn’t that “yes, please” was permission to give into impulses or rationalized needs, but to push through whatever had been stopping me from trying something new. How else to see the world unless you push through to the other side? I made a list of about a dozen challenges that have been nagging for years; for example, learning to better maintain my bike, sew upholstery, broaden my computer skills, speak conversationally in another language, and make cheese. But if something new crossed my doorstep, like when my friend and brilliant textile artist Carla offered a day of indigo dyeing, I said “yes.” I said yes whenever I could.
Not only is life simpler and more sustainable, but it’s also richer and more fun.
That brought the social media expression of my life into sharp relief. For the coming year, I will co-opt Facebook’s stated mission, to be more open and connected, by quitting Facebook.
The main reason to shut down my account is one that has nagged me for a long time. Facebook’s real mission is nothing like its stated mission. For example, I’ve noticed there are people you cannot reach any other way than through Facebook. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. In Texas, we might share a lemonade on the porch and we’re cordial, but we just don’t invite everyone inside. So I would argue that when you can’t reach someone except through Facebook, then you aren’t really connected at all. Facebook is managing your relationships for you through the veneer of being “open” and “connected.”
I set up the Family Room blog as a place to explore ideas related to living with autism. It’s interesting that most readers come here via a Facebook link and will return to Facebook to comment on the topic, rather than connecting below and creating our own community–which, by the way, is not open to exploitation by a third party because I filter and delete all that garbage.
That’s Facebook’s real mission. And, they “move fast and break things.” After I watched Frontline’s two-part special, The Facebook Dilemma, I couldn’t be a part of it anymore. American newspapers are struggling because Facebook (and similar businesses) got the rules changed: they can publish with impunity while newspapers must continue to publish responsibly. It’s expensive to be a responsible company. But it’s worth it because, for one, the truth is an absolute defense. And people don’t die in Myanmar because you got so big moving fast and breaking things that you can’t clean up after yourself anymore.
It took Sam a while to accept my decision. He was worried that my exit would affect his experience. I respect that very much. People with disabilities need help living lives that are more open and connected. He finds community activities through Facebook. Because he can scroll at his own pace, he can absorb and react to more news that people share. He’s not impervious to the third-party nonsense, but he’s not going to show up at a fake rally meant to destabilize the community.
I’ll still be on Twitter because I use the platform for my job and I can’t escape it. And I know my departure from Facebook may affect my coworkers, so I will work to ameliorate that. I hope that readers who want to continue to be part of Family Room will use the green button below to bookmark the blog and come back once a month or so. This blog isn’t going away even though the Facebook teasers will.
My first objective will be to use my words to be more open and connected. Family Room will be one place to make that happen, along with all of the other ways we’ve always had to connect with each other (insert mail-telephone-plus-ruby-slippers icons here!)
My second objective will be that when I have something to share, I will share it with the person I believe would appreciate it most.
My third objective will be actively listening to others in the coming days and weeks. Because the best way to connect is to respond.
Sam taught me that.
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.