“Will there be funnel cake?” I asked my husband Marc.
“What’s funnel cake?”
“No idea,” I said cheerily.
It was a sunny, no-humidity, not-a-cloud-in-the-sky day in August; Marc and I were going to the Dutchess County Fair. I was looking forward to some “just us” time. A day away for the two of us, where, by tacit agreement, we weren’t going to talk about autism.
I consulted the brochure. “Horseshoeing … weaving … chicken clucking and rooster crowing contests … husband calling? I think that means yelling, ‘Soo-weee’ to the hogs, not ‘Ralph, pick up your dirty socks.’”
We held hands as we passed through the gates onto the midway, stopping to gape at the food concessions. Fried Oreos. Fried pickles. Chocolate-covered bacon. “And this is why America has an obesity problem,” Marc said. Virtuously, we split a Greek salad.
After lunch we strolled through livestock pavilions. Mickey would have liked seeing the animals, I thought. But I knew that the music, the crowds, the rides and games would have driven him into sensory overload. I could imagine him fearfully eyeing the oversized stuffed animals and asking, “Do they move? Do they talk? I’ve had enough!” I remembered the time we’d taken him to the Northern Vermont State Fair. He’d been so terrified of a policeman on horseback that he’d bolted.
We were standing by a pen filled with goats. Suddenly a tall boy shoved in front of us, hung over the fence and thrust out a handful of hay.
A man grabbed him, and hissed, “Stop it! Say ‘Excuse me!’”
“No problem, it’s fine,” Marc said amiably. Autism Radar: both of us recognized immediately that this boy was on the spectrum.
“Really, it’s fine,” I repeated.
I don’t know if the man—I assumed he was the father—heard us; he was still reprimanding the boy. I heard exasperation. Anger. Shame.
I wanted to offer reassurance. To tell him how we of all people understood. Please don’t apologize, we’re not like all those strangers who roll their eyes, I wanted to say. He’s not misbehaving, he can’t help it. Our son used to do the same thing. But I couldn’t find the right words. I didn’t know the right words. I was afraid that instead of offering support I’d embarrass him. Or worse, make him angry. I looked around; a woman—the boy’s mother?—stood nearby, eyes averted.
I suddenly remembered a time I’d taken Mickey to see his big brother Jonathan play clarinet in a school concert. Initially, Mickey had sat quietly. I’d felt relieved, believing he was actually blending in. That no one was staring. Then Mickey began to squirm and talk to himself. I handed him a picture book. A Beanie Baby. A bag of pretzels. He kept squirming. I started to panic. If I couldn’t pull something out of my bag of tricks fast, Mickey was going to disrupt his brother’s concert. I knew the woman beside Mickey was watching, and inwardly I shriveled. I saw her reach into her purse; then she handed Mickey a loop of string.
“Thank you,” I whispered. I wondered if I should I say more.
But I didn’t have to.
“I have a son with PDD too,” she said.
Later that day at the fair, I saw the boy and his parents again. They were walking between exhibition halls; the father was holding the boy’s hand. So familiar, it made my throat ache.
I wanted so much to tell them, “It gets better. It will be ok.” But I didn’t know that, did I? How could I? That was my family’s truth, but every family’s journey is different.
Marc reached for my hand and squeezed hard. We didn’t say a word.