Curious Neighbors — 5 Minutes for Special Needs

Curious Neighbors

by Laura


It wasn’t until my son Matthew, who is autistic, was going through a “balloon phase” that I became keenly aware of how many of the damned things were everywhere. The balloon phase started when he was about ten years old, and whenever I saw one (did I mention that they are everywhere?) I did my best to drive a different route when I was with Matthew.


Because I knew that he would not rest until any balloon in his path was freed. One time, Matthew impulsively cut a balloon loose near a freeway, and it dipped down close to speeding cars. I held my breath, shuddering to think of the disaster he could have caused.

People buy balloons and display them for a reason. They do not want them liberated.

“We’re on the right”, a host tells his guests, “There is a red balloon on the mailbox – you can’t miss it!”

Unless Matthew ripped of the balloon.

There is a festival every spring at the elementary school around the corner from our house with one of those balloon arches marking the entrance – quite impressive. You can see a balloon arch float upwards for a long time after it has been cut loose.

“What a waste!” I heard one parent say in disgust as I herded Matthew away from the scene.

“And terrible for the environment!” remarked another, glaring at me, the bad mother.

One sunny Saturday, I was about to make the rounds of the neighborhood to search for Matthew, who had disappeared, when the doorbell rang.

Uh, oh.

When I opened the door I saw my neighbor Sarah, hands on her hips, looking very angry. She was a pretty blonde with a handsome husband and two small sons. I had met her just briefly when we moved to our neighborhood a few months before, but hadn’t gotten know her- or anyone else, for that matter – since I was so busy chasing after Matthew.

“I think your son stole a balloon off our mailbox” Sarah growled.

“Yes, I’m sure he did.” I replied, “I am so sorry. I’ll go get another one right now,” and I grabbed my purse and headed for the garage.

Sarah looked surprised by my cooperation and frustrated that she couldn’t finish what she had planned on saying. I paused to let her finish.

“I’ve heard he steals a lot of balloons,” she started,

“I know,” I said, my voice cracking, “it’s a long story. I’ll be right back with the balloon.”

I pulled up to Sarah’s house eight minutes later with a red balloon and rang the doorbell. No answer. I heard the sounds of a birthday party in the back yard, and pushed through the gate. As I passed the garbage cans, garden tools and the blue plastic wading pool, there were about 15 good looking young couples with their children, and about sixty multi-colored balloons came into view. There were also streamers, Happy Birthday signs and a large piñata, but the sight of the balloons – my neighbor could have – replaced the stolen balloon with one of them – leveled me.

“Thank you,” said Sarah gently as I handed her balloon. I didn’t dare look her in the eye; I didn’t want to cry in front of all those people.

In the weeks that followed the birthday incident, I watched Matthew carefully and did my best not to drive by Sarah’s. I assumed that everyone in the neighborhood, many of whom were at the birthday party, talked about me and about how I couldn’t control my son. But then one day Jean, who lived next door to Sarah, called.

Was this an intervention, I thought?

No, she and Sarah were having a neighborhood coffee. Could I join the group? I said yes right away, thanked her, hung up the phone and burst into tears.

The morning of the gathering, I told my husband that I thought I’d skip it and go to the gym. As he left for work he hugged me and told me to have fun, and that I would be the best looking woman there. In the end, I decided I would go and show these people that I was a wonderful person, and that I was doing my best in a rough situation. But I was in the mood to blend in with the crowd, and not as the mother of the strange kid.

Luckily, I was absorbed into the group as if I belonged. There were women of all ages ambling around a granite island in the kitchen, eating muffins, drinking coffee, and laughing a lot. We talked about paint colors and kitchen remodels, babysitters and vacation spots. I tried to groove in with the scene, but had an overwhelming urge to make a public apology about Matthew’s disruptive behavior, but realized the mornings get together was not, as I imagined, all about me.

After about an hour the group started to break up, I thanked Sarah and Jean, and as I left, Sarah called out to me.

“How is Matthew doing?” she asked.

“A work in progress!” I joked. “I hope you’ll let me know if he bothers you, I’m always available…”

Oh, no. She’s coming toward me and being nice. I think I’m going to cry…

“It must be so hard,” Sarah said, shaking her head sympathetically, “Can I ask you a question?”

We sat on Jean’s front porch, and Sarah asked me…when did you learn he was autistic? How do his brothers handle it? I noticed he likes to mow lawns…maybe he can mow mine sometime. We talked for an hour. A few other women stopped by on their way out and joined in – they all made me feel like a hero.

Once home, I collapsed on the couch, relieved and wrung out. It had been a healing morning. I was grateful for the way it turned out, even more grateful that it was over. It occurred to me that my neighbors were hungry for information, and that my appearance this morning was a bridge builder. They had a clearer picture of me, and of Matthew. I was approachable now, and so were they.

There were some tough times ahead, with adolescence swooping in and taking Matthew’s quirky behavior to a new, disturbing and public level. But now there was understanding. When things got tough, my neighbors called me, and not the police. They came to Matthew’s aide when they saw him struggling. They educated irate parents at the school around the corner where Matthew liked to wander. They stuck up for him, and for our family.

They came around in a big way, and I am grateful.

This past spring break, Matthew was home for two weeks. When he left, every lawn in the neighborhood was mowed and edged, every hedge was trimmed, every weed was whacked, and every leaf was blown and stowed for recycling. He told the neighbors that he would do it for free, but they insisted on paying him. Matthew accepted their money reluctantly, and earned more than one hundred dollars.

The five, tens and twenties are all stacked neatly in a drawer in his room.


Laura Shumaker ( is the author of A Regular Guy: Growing Up With Autism.

Email Author    |    Website About Laura

I'm a fifth generation Californian and live in the San Francisco Area with my husband and three sons. My oldest, Matthew, is autistic and I've been writing about my experience raising him from babyhood to young adulthood for about 4 years. I've read my stories on NPR and published them in magazines, newspapers and anthologies, including Voices of Autism. My book A Regular Guy: Growing up with Autism is available at Amazon.

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1 Heidi April 17, 2009 at 10:12 am

I’m glad that you were able to build bridges with your neighbors. I have such great neighbors right now, I hope none of them ever move because I realize it would be really hard to connect again.

2 Sandra April 18, 2009 at 2:30 am

i’m in tears right now. For two reasons; the 1st is that I work with special needs children. I love my autistic students the most. They utterly fascinate me. I respect them and their families and I love them.

The second is that I have a child of my own with challenges. Everything you wrote in the 1st part of this blog hits home with me. No one understands my son and why he behaves the way he does, maybe not even me.

I’m glad you made a connection with your neighbors. Thank you for writing this!

3 Leah April 18, 2009 at 5:30 am

This story was awesome! My little brother, Fynn, has cerebral palsy and is also on the autistic spectrum.. He loves lawnmowers and weedeaters and chainsaws.. One day maybe he can be as cool as your son and mow the lawns for the neighbours.

4 Liz April 19, 2009 at 12:54 am

Thanks you so much for sharing this story. I have a son with autism and ADHD and he is a real handful, especially around other people. This past school year has been a real struggle because my son started Kindergarten. And this story pointed out how I have been feeling for so long.
It gave me comfort to know I’m not the only one dealing with raising a challenging child and it let me know that there are people out in the world that want to help.

5 Jan April 6, 2010 at 12:41 pm

Now I am crying, too. Last night was a thundery night, we didn’t get a lot of sleep all night. Charlie has a heck of a time with thunder. Luckily, he has never really gotten into balloons. I can’t tell you how many times when we send him to the library (a block away) or the store (two blocks away) that people call us to tell us that Charlie “got out”. I know they mean well, but I am thrilled that he’s able to get out and be safe. Still I worry until he comes home.

6 Family Matters May 9, 2010 at 10:36 pm

A great tale of women’s ability to harmonize and support one another. Can I have your neighbors?

Until then, can I have a tissue?

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