It was one of those weekends, in which Henry was being 20. Maybe not 20, maybe younger — it’s really difficult for me to gauge what age appropriate behavior is in him or, honestly, in myself. I’ve been an entertainer so long that making faces, engaging children in strollers or making jokes to adults sharing a line with me seems completely appropriate. It might not be.
People ask me all the time what Henry’s age is and by that they mean his understanding. Well, it’s all over the map. A quality of Autism or a quality of Henry? The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, so I’d say more the latter. The pronounced delays in intellect are certainly autism but the wisdom beyond his years, the joyful approach to strangers, and the ability to command a crowd with his sheer will could be counted as ages 65, 3, and 42, respectively. Those actions don’t seem very autistic-y to me. They seem like him working the autism system so he can behave as he chooses — he can take the stage at any event, even ones he’s not booked for, because the organizers usually find him charming in his autism. But I can tell you every actor is looking for a gig and we’re ready to rush the stage should there be a lull in your program. He can also approach a total stranger in a store and shake their hands and adorably say ‘Congratulations. I’m Henry’. The stranger receives this from him because of his autism. But I'm not convinced that's autism. Sometimes the need to connect is completely overwhelming and I’d love to reach out and say to someone “I’m Alice! What’s your name?” I just don't because I have social boundaries.
We were having one of those days. He was on fire. So excited and excitable. We went into the Publix and he was talking and smiling at everyone. In the check out line he was beaming, cheeks bright red, a giant grin on his face. “Hi! I’m Henry! What’s your name?” He said to the couple behind us. They introduced themselves and he shook hands. First with his left then with his right. He’s working on right handed shaking right now. A man we greeted the same way in the McDonald’s in Northern Idaho instructed him, “Henry, I’m glad to meet you and now I’m going to show you how to shake. It’s always right hand. Let’s try it.” This random act of mentoring did more than a year of instruction from his..ugh…mother.
This day in Publix, he was like the mayor in a founder’s day parade — waving and smiling and everyone was eating it up. Until we got in the car. Suddenly he turned. He was absolutely disgusted to be with me. He wanted to go to dad’s. No more mom. Sorry bud, it’s Thursday and we have 3 days together. You’ll see your dad later. He refused to look at me. When we got home he wouldn’t speak to me. He locked himself in his room and responded to any requests of mine with a growl through the door. Well, if it’s going to be like that then the fun is over for me too. It’s time to brush your teeth. Wash your hair. Clip your fingernails. Do your homework. Record a story with me. Vacuum the kitchen. I made random irritating requests like this every hour or so.
Now, many are disturbed by this behavior from their child. I am not. I think it’s age appropriate. What 20 year old wants to hang with his MOTHER? Growl. Sigh. Stomp. I know if I was the mother of a neuro-typic child I would be bothered by it, as I see my sister-mothers struggling with the rudeness of their early adult children, but for me it’s a celebration. Another developmental milestone hit! He hates his mother! YAY!!!!
Of course it does get disheartening and I do feel lonely for my boy but I remind myself that this is what pushing out from the nest looks like. And we’ll both be in a group home together when he’s 50 and I’m 80, so I get it — he can’t push very far from me, so push what you can.
We made it to Saturday night and it was time to go back to dad the hero’s home. So much more fun! So much less…growl, sigh, stomp, WHATEVER. (Yes, he says ‘whatever’.) I dropped Henry off early because he does like to be alone and if i can accommodate independence, I try to. So when we can, he lets himself into his dad’s house with his own key, 30 minutes before his dad gets home from work and locks the door behind him. On this day, dad’s neighbor was out watering her garden. And just like that, after 3 days of disgust Mr. Charming re-appeared.
“Hi! I’m Henry! What’s your name?” He ran over to the fence to shake her (right) hand.
“Hi, I’m Adele.”
He looked right at me, enraptured. “She’s a singer!” The beam was back after 3 days of darkness.
“Yes, now everyone knows how to spell my name,” Adele smiled back at him.
“I’m going in my dad’s house to be by myself.”
I could tell Adele was wondering what this situation was, so I prompted him —
“Henry,” I said, “Tell Adele who I am.”
“Yes, but who am I to you?”
He looked at me confused. He looked back at Adele. He looked back at me.
Adele put her hand to her heart. I put my hands on his cheeks and he put his forehead to mine.
Yes, baby. That’s me. I’m your best friend.