My son, Chuck, reads every night to Adrienne, the oldest of his two autistic daughters, my granddaughters. When she was eight he read a story to her about a boy told to wear his cap when he went outside. He disobeyed and a big bird pooped on his head. Chuck said, “That was a funny story, wasn’t it?” Adrienne already half way out the door replied, “No! I’m going to my room to get my cap.” She never ever leaves home without it. It’s worn backwards, of course.
Adrienne, 33, received dozens of labels and years of diagnostic confusion. High-functioning rose to the top of the bewildering heap because it sometimes seemed to fit. With Michelle, 31, severe autism co-exists with mental retardation.
Chuck and his wife, Lisa, eternal optimists, chose early on to treat Adrienne as “normal” as possible. She starred in the Christmas play, was a cover girl for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga-Student Handbook & Student Directory 1992-93, joined an Indian Princess Club, and went to the prom with a boy.
When either Chuck or Lisa calls me to say, “Guess what Adrienne came up with today?” my spirits soar. I know I’ll get a glimpse of a fantasy world without buying a ticket to Disneyland. During one of those calls, Chuck reported when Adrienne was offered a paid job at the recycling center, she replied, “I can’t! It will interfere with my job as an agent for Scotland Yard.”
Adrienne charges from room to room or walks round and round in a circle loudly reciting entire books and dialogue from Disney videos. Once when instructing her Scotland Yard agents on their secret project, she became so loud that Lisa, always creative, whispered in her ear, “Sergeants in Scotland Yard always whisper.”
Lisa who gives Adrienne every normal learning experience possible (with varying results) enrolled her in two college classes, Physical Education and American History. On the first day of Phys Ed, outfitted in regulation shorts, shirt and expensive running shoes, Adrienne sat like a Buddha on one of the school benches and refused to run across the grassy campus with her class. She stubbornly repeated, “I won’t run on grass. I hate grass.”
American History became history when the teacher announced, “We’re starting with Abraham Lincoln.” Adrienne jumped up and corrected him. The teacher, glaring at her, asserted his authority with, “In my class we’re starting with Abraham Lincoln.” Adrienne raised such a fuss that Lisa pushed her out the door shushing her as she continued to stubbornly insist they should start with Washington. “You start with George Washington. He was first. Abraham Lincoln wasn’t first. He was the 16th president. You start with George Washington. He was first.” Class dismissed.
Since a paid job has long since been forsaken, Adrienne has two home chores, placing the dishes in the dishwasher and emptying wastebaskets. On my visits, I must remember when eating to keep an eye on my tableware. The wastebasket in my room is emptied at least a dozen times a day. Tissues are often caught in midair as Adrienne stands beside me holding out the basket.
Unlike her sister, Michelle talks very little. But when she does, a mumble interpreter would be helpful. Imagine our surprise while at an IMAX movie, where we seemed to be sitting in the ocean with fish swimming past our noses, Michelle suddenly pulled both her feet up off the floor and into her chair and said quite clearly, “My feet are getting wet.”
Not for a minute am I suggesting that autism is fun or funny. But treating normal happenings as “normal as possible” may get you through another day. Chuck and Lisa have a dedicated family life. Not the one they once envisioned. But one they created together with perseverance, determination, concern, love, and humor. I couldn’t be prouder of them.
Lisa posted the following on Facebook at Christmas:
“We have two autistic daughters. Their eyes shine with the Christmas spirit and their faces glow with the wonder of the season. They are 33 and 31 and still believe in Santa. In our house, we never grow up or grow old!! Merry Christmas to all!”
Ruth Baumgartner was born in Memphis, Tennessee. She has five grandchildren. Two granddaughters, born to the oldest of her three sons, are autistic and live with their parents in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where she visits. She wanted to share a lighter side of autism as a means of offering hope and joy to parents and family of autistic children. She is retired and lives in Laguna Niguel, California.
This article was featured in Issue 35 – Summertime Fun and Safety on the Spectrum