Autism stalks me. Or at least it felt that way on a recent weekend getaway.
My husband was out of the country on business and Reilly wanted to go visit his girlfriend, Ashley, in suburban New York. It meant taking Amtrak to Penn Station, then a taxi to Grand Central and a short trip on the Metro North Hudson Line. He probably could have managed it all on his own, but I was at loose ends so I decided to accompany him as far as Grand Central. I called my dear friend, Vicki, who lives in Manhattan, hoping to spend the weekend catching up with her. No such luck; Vicki was invited to a weekend getaway in Connecticut with a group of acquaintances for tennis and sailing. “You should come with me,” she said. “I don't know that many people there.”
Seemed crazy and logistically difficult until I realized I would be at Grand Central anyway. After putting Reilly on a train to Tarrytown, I could hop on the New Haven line and join Vicki and her friends. This was all decided the day before my impromptu adventure. I don't usually do things like that. I don't play tennis or sail, and though I've known Vicki since college, I didn't realize she did, either. She assured me I could just sit and relax, which sounded great to me. And I thought it would be good to have people to talk to, after two weeks at home with only Reilly for company. I love the boy, but hanging out and conversing with his Mom is not high on his to-do list. It was a long two weeks.
Reilly and I bought our tickets and went our separate ways at Grand Central, both secretly glad to be rid of each other for a couple of days. I arrived in Westport, CT, in time to watch the group of avid tennis players in a sort of pick-up game of baseball.
Next was a group dinner at Paul Newman's restaurant in Westport, The Dressing Room. Of the 12 or so people at the dinner, I knew only Vicki. A nice-looking 20-something boy named Evan sat down next to me and started talking. His conversation style was eerily familiar. He had a hard time listening to my answers to his questions and never seemed to look at me. I asked him what he does, and he said he loves tennis and teaches it when he can get the work. He does some landscape work, too. When he told me he's 29, I asked him where he had gone to college. He said he'd gone to Mitchell College in New London, CT, and Beacon College in Florida. He told me school had been hard for him because he learns differently.
Mitchell is a school we are looking at for Reilly because it's good for kids with special needs, and has a major Reilly is interested in. One of Reilly's high school friends goes to Beacon. I told Evan about Reilly and that he has ASD, and was not surprised when Evan excitedly told me he does, too.
He was off and running, telling me all about his life. He went to a boarding school for special needs kids. He was majoring in sports management at Mitchell (the degree Reilly wants), but the math and business skills were too hard, so he switched to liberal arts. He lives at home with his Mom and wants his own apartment, but it's too expensive. He gets Social Security benefits, but loses the supplemental income when he makes too much money. He has a job coach provided by the state, but it's hard to get more than menial work. He drives now, but it was really hard to learn, and he's not sure he's a very good driver still.
None of the other people in the group, who knew Evan through various tennis clubs, seemed to know any of the things he told me. They just thought he was a bit odd. For his part, Evan seemed grateful for a sympathetic ear. Listening to him gave me a peek at Reilly in 10 years.
Evan showed up for the tennis the next day. I spent the day relaxing in the park on the Long Island Island Sound, until Rick turned up.
Rick arrived a little late for the tennis, but was going to be part of the sailing on the schedule after tennis. We shared a picnic table near the tennis courts and chatted while the games were going on. I soon learned that he's a neuroscientist engaged in autism research at Columbia University. His team studies how and why the brains of people with ASD operate differently from those of “typicals.” He explained a lot about neurons and “tuning,” and theories that might explain some autistic behaviors and learning differences. I was fascinated, listening to him clinically describe Reilly's life. I wanted to take notes, but I had accidentally left my iPad at home the day before. What he said was—and I know I won't get this exactly right—ASD brains are tuned very narrowly, making them better at detail work, but difficult to make generalizations and inferences. Stuff we really know if we live with someone on the spectrum, but Rick's looking at the science of it, in hopes of finding better therapies.
Vicki and I opted to go find some lunch while the group went off for sailing. But Rick was driving back to the city later that afternoon and offered Vicki and me a ride. She crawled into the back seat and napped, worn out from an unusual weekend of sports. Rick and I talked all the way back to Manhattan. Then he joined Vicki and me for dinner at a restaurant near her apartment. I'm sure we bored poor Vic. Rick gave me his card and said I should come up to Columbia when I have a chance and he'll show me what they're doing. I hope to take him up on the offer soon.
I met Reilly at Grand Central the next afternoon, and we took a cab to Penn Station and got on an Amtrak train for home. Reilly slept and I started writing this column in my head.
Autism stalks me. It's everywhere, even on weekend getaways to Connecticut.