I've hauled Ned and Alex out for a Sunday afternoon. The streets of Manhattan are yellow, empty and hot. I steer the guys toward the shade, figuring this is the kind of street-smarts a good dad imparts. "Shade, guys. Hug the shade. Water's in Alex's backpack." Ned's wobbly. Alex walks and walks and then breaks into bobs and weaves. I wish he wouldn't do that. I'm sure he wishes he was home with his iPad.
"Michael's?" says Alex, who's 14 and PDD-NOS. Ned is his younger brother. Michael's is the crafts store nearby -- and despite autism Alex sure knows it's nearby -- where they sell the plastic animals he always and always seems to want. "Yes, Alex, we'll go to Michael's as soon as we go to the sporting goods store to buy Ned his baseball glove." Ned doesn't have a baseball glove. I had one by Ned's age.
In Michael's Alex yanks my arm toward the aisle of plastic animals. Thing is, he got a plastic bear yesterday. Tomorrow, while Ned is at baseball, the plan calls for me and Alex to hit clothing stores to find the right cut of narrow pants and shorts that my wife Jill insists -- and I agree -- that he needs to look anywhere near, God let's face it, normal. I think yet another plastic animal in our house would be a good reward for good behavior during clothes shopping, and tell Alex so."Fireman?" Alex says, holding up a $4 plastic fireman. I thought they just had animals."No, Alex. Tomorrow. If you're good while we're clothes shopping.""Tomorrow..." Alex says. Does repeating words means he's moving ahead? We bob around this retail environment for a while: Alex fiddles with the idea of making me buy a wooden letter; Ned finds a wooden cruxifix and thinks you drive into the vampire's heart to kill him. I explain that no, you hold it up and keep the vampire away. I tried to show Ned "The Night Stalker" once. Ned didn't seem interested. "Alex, let's go!"
"Dad," says Ned, "how about some clam chowder?" He's referring to the pot of stuff at the next-door Whole Foods. I'm ashamed to admit it as a born New-Englander, but what they call chowder at this next-door retail environment isn't totally repugnant. "Okay, Ned." So we go next door into the air conditioning and scoop out chowder. They even have a place to sit down to eat it. "Ned, go find us a seat while I pay."
He does. I find him. Four chairs, three of us. In a normal life, that would be enough. "Nooooo!" says Alex."Nooooo!" I don't know if it's the heat or the backpack or that he will eat nothing we eat, but he will not sit down. Ned has his little cup of chowder -- I've taught him to like the stuff -- and I have my big bowl and neither matters to Alex. I tell him to sit down and he bites his own arm.
"Alex, sit down! I want to eat my lunch!" Doesn't everyone want to eat their lunch? Isn't everyone entitled to eat their lunch? "Nooooo!" He bites. He squats on the floor. I feel and yet don't feel the stares of the people at the table behind us. "Alex, I just want to eat my lunch!"
Alex doesn't do lunch. Haven't I learned the simpliest lesson yet? I haul him outside. He squats on the sidewalk and when I order him to stand up he does and then squats down on the sidewalk again almost immediately. Ned appears. "Alex," Ned says, "what do you want? Do you want the iPad? The iPad isn't here. If you want the iPad we have to go home. You have to go home if you want the iPad."
I'm not sure I can reach Alex anymore. I'll know Alex 30 years if I'm lucky (at times I feel like I'll know him 40 years if I'm not). Ned may know him for 70 years, if the love and caring doesn't evaporate some afternoon on the floor of a place like Whole Foods.You have to go home if you want the iPad. That is the voice of a parent.
Jeff Stimpson lives in New York with his wife Jill and two sons. He is the author of Alex: The Fathering of a Preemie and Alex the Boy: Episodes From a Family’s Life With Autism (both available on Amazon). He maintains a blog about his family at jeffslife.tripod.com/alextheboy, and is a frequent contributor to various sites and publications on special-needs parenting, such as Autism-Asperger’s Digest, Autism Spectrum News, the Lostandtired blog, The Autism Society news blog, and An Anthology of Disability Literature (available on Amazon). He can also be found on LinkedIn and on Twitter @Jeffslife.