The Visit

It was 5:30 in the morning, an hour before we needed to leave for the San Francisco Airport, but I was dressed and ready to go, and my husband Peter was rolling the luggage out to the car. My eighteen-year-old son Matthew, who is autistic, had been home from Camphill Special School in Pennsylvania for spring break, and we were ready for him to leave.

A Regular Guy

“I like it better when Dad flies with me”, said Matthew, who was polishing off his breakfast of three whole-wheat pancakes, perfectly stacked with a square of butter on top and maple syrup — just like the picture on the Aunt Jemima Buttery Lite label.

“I know,” I said, shoving an Ativan bottle in my pocket for Matthew – just in case, ” but it’s my turn. We’ll have fun.”

Sending our first-born son to a residential school was the last thing Peter and I thought we would ever do. We had struggled through elementary and middle school with many ups and downs, most having to do with our son’s impulsive behavior. Even as a toddler, Matthew had a knack for making people angry. He’d be sitting there with a dreamy look on his face one moment, then he’d bolt across the room to bite someone the next, laughing all the way. We went through a number of “behaviorists” but Matthew outsmarted them all, and in recent years we’d weathered innumerable complaints from neighbors, visits from the police and calls from school. Though exhausted and both showing physical signs of wear (scratches from Matthew, wrinkles from worry), we never considered “sending Matthew away”– until I pulled a letter from our mailbox that changed everything.

On letterhead from the law offices of McCracken, Doyle and Heatherby, it read:

“I am writing you regarding the bicycle accident involving your son, Matthew, on March 8, 2002 [about a month before] blah, blah, blah…, I am representing so-and-so who was injured in the accident, please contact me, etc.” I found Matthew, who was painting with watercolors in the kitchen. He looked so serene.

“Matthew,” I had asked “did you have an accident on your bike?”

“Who told you?”

“Someone wrote me a letter about it. Were you hurt?”

“Not really.”

“Who else was in the accident?”

“A boy.”

Oh, my God.

“Was he hurt?”


“Was he bleeding?”

“Pretty much.”

God help me.

“Matthew,” my voice quaking, “did an ambulance come?”

“I give up. I’m done talking about this.”

It was clear that Matthew was no longer safe in the community where he had grown up, and his impulsive actions were putting others in peril. He needed more supervision, more than we or the local school could provide.


As one of the higher functioning students in his class at Camphill, Matthew was cast as the lead in the spring play, Faust, just before Spring Break.

We thought it was far too ambitious for Matthew’s teacher, Guy, to tackle such a challenging play that, even when modified for the disabled students at Matthew’s school. Peter and I and Matthews’s two younger brothers sat anxiously in the front row, wondering how Matthew was going to pull off his debut, when the curtain opened. Matthew was the only character on stage, the professor sitting formally at his desk.

“Matthew would be good-looking if he weren’t autistic,” whispered my 11-year-old son, John. It sounded unkind, but I knew what he meant. At eighteen, Matthew had grown into a handsome young man, with a tall, wiry frame, broad shoulders, and sandy blond hair. His expressive eyebrows frame his brown eyes, and his jaw is square and masculine.

But his exaggerated expressions and body carriage give him away. His forehead twists with intensity and he smiles too suddenly, with a wide goofy grin. There are moments when he appears composed, but then breaks into a hand-flapping, jumping-and-dipping flurry of activity– over stimulated by his environment and his mysterious internal world.

On the night of the play, however, Matthew was poised and fluid in his movements with composure we rarely see. He was an impressive Dr. Faust, and we were amazed at his command of his, and everyone else’s, lines. It was an emotional evening and there were tears of pride throughout the room.

With Faust behind us, our family looked ahead anxiously to the next couple of weeks with Matthew at home. We always braced ourselves for these visits because even at their best, transitions made Matthew frantic. Prior to a visit home, he made elaborate and detailed mental plans to hang out with his friends. The problem was, he had no friends. So he called students who had been kind to him five years ago during his first and only year in public high school.

His favorite was a girl named Jessica. He called her over and over. Her mother took most of the calls, and I’m sure, wondered where in the heck I was. I eavesdropped on one conversation between Matthew and Jessica’s mother in which Matthew was explaining that he was so lonely. “Why don’t you call some of your friends?” she replied.


Our biggest worry about Matthew’s visit was that his sixteen-year-old brother, Andy, had recently gotten his driver’s license. While some people with autism have driver’s licenses, it was clear to us that Matthew did not have the patience or the judgment to be one of them. Matthew knew it, too, and it bothered him-a lot. While aware of his disability, Matthew wanted desperately to be a regular guy like his brothers. He was infuriated that Andy, who was two years younger, might drive and he could not. To make matters worse, it seemed that every person he’d known since preschool was driving, even some of the special-ed kids.

“Let’s just tell him I failed my driving test,” said Andy before Matthew’s visit, “and I won’t drive while he’s home.”


The first full day that Matthew was home was going well. Andy was in his room, talking to his girlfriend on the phone, and John was playing with a friend in the backyard. Matthew had just mowed the lawn and asked if he could wash my car. I thought this was fine and perhaps a good chore to distract him from lawn care, one of his current obsessions. He thoroughly washed the car and we praised him enthusiastically. He rewarded us with one of his wide, honest smiles.

He asked that since he had done such a great job, could he please drive the car five feet into the garage. His only experience with driving until then had been in the parking lot of our local church in Peter’s car, with Peter’s hand planted firmly on the emergency brake. We knew that this concession could further inspire Matthew to pursue getting a driver’s license, but we were worn down by relentless petitioning.

In a moment of weakness, I asked Peter to sit in the passenger’s seat of my car while Matthew drove the car into the garage. I stood in the driveway and, already wondering what in the hell we were doing, watched Matthew get in the driver’s seat. As he started the car, Peter, who was not familiar with my car, asked, “Where is the emergency brake?”

I watched the car plow into the garage wall, crushing a number of full paint cans in its path and destroying two bicycles. Paint was everywhere. No one was hurt.

Andy, whose room shared a wall with the garage, ran out of the house looking dazed. “There’s a big hole in my wall.”

As we surveyed the damage in stunned silence, Matthew said that maybe he shouldn’t drive till he was twenty-one. John offered to pay for the damage with his allowance money. Andy shook his head and resumed his conversation with his girlfriend.

“I can’t believe what idiots we are,” Peter mumbled. We both recognized our lapse in judgment. We also knew that we had been driven to this by our desire to keep the peace and to try to help Matthew feel like a regular eighteen-year-old.

Matthew’s remorse following the incident was genuine. We believed he would share our logic that this mishap proved that he should not drive the car this summer-or ever. Still, we hid all extra car keys and kept the ones we needed in our pockets.

In the days that followed, I kept Matthew very busy. He mowed and edged our lawn compulsively, so much that it looked like a putting green. I took him for a walk over the Golden Gate Bridge one day and then to Alcatraz the next. We went bowling three days in a row, and I was beginning to crack. So I took him to the Blockbuster to rent video games. We came home with a stack, and I must have set my keys down for a second.

I got a diet coke out of the fridge and popped it open.

Silence. Why was the house deadly quiet?

Where was Matthew?

“Matthew?” No answer. “MATTHEW?” I yelled out the back door. I walked out my front door and noticed the garage door was open. The car was gone.


The Middle School down the street – I’ll bet he went there to show off.

I sprinted down the street in my clogs and around the corner to the middle school, .my purse still hooked to my arm. Sure enough, there was my car parked crookedly in the parking lot, Matthew standing nearby looking scared, hugging his shoulders in reassurance,  head down. A group of 14-year-old girls, who had been playing basketball huddled nearby.

“He, like, almost totally hit us,” said one. Another was crying to her mother on her cell phone.

Somehow, I got Matthew back in the car and drove him home. I knew it was important that I choose my words carefully. Keep it simple, I thought. Don’t lose control.

Matthew sat across from me in our living room with a nervous smile, rocking- waiting. I was still out of breath from running, and from the horror of what could have transpired. Finally, I said, “I am very angry with you right now.”

“Well, I’m angry with you for yelling at me in front of all those hot girls,” he said, stomping his foot. “You should be proud of me for driving so well!”

And then as if on cue, the police car pulled into my driveway.

“Uh, oh,” Matthew muttered.


With just a few more days until it was time to return Matthew to the safe and capable hands of his residential school, I thought back to the victorious scene at Camphill just a little over a week before when Matthew was taking a bow at the end of the play. I felt cheated. It just didn’t seem fair that he did so well back in Pennsylvania but caused so much turmoil at home. Would we ever enjoy the fruits of his growth at school?


Matthew did not like to travel with me and he refused to sit with me.

“I don’t see other eighteen year olds flying with their mothers,” he said.

He liked to sit a few rows ahead of me when we flew, in a window seat. Once the plane took off, things almost always went well. On these trips I was anxious about who his seatmate would be, and how I could explain the situation without upsetting either the seatmate or Matthew.

Matthew liked to travel with his yearbook from his one year in regular high school. He used it as an icebreaker. When he saw someone at the airport that he wanted to talk to, he’d open his yearbook and display pictures of his “friends”, his attempt to prove that he was a regular kid only further advertising his disability.

Going through Security was a problem, too, because Matthew wanted to appear as a regular guy traveling alone.

“Here, Matthew! Show the lady your ID!” I said cheerfully.

Don’t look at me! he yelled, clutching his yearbook.

It didn’t help that he was wearing brown socks with sandals and a Sponge Bob shirt, and that his fly was down.

“Pull up your zipper,” I whispered.

“Go away!”

Everyone looked nervous. I quietly told the screener that Matthew was autistic, which I think she had already figured out.

“I’m not autistic,” Matthew said as if there had been an egregious misunderstanding “I’m a regular guy!”

Somehow we made it through, and I offered Matthew an Ativan, which he took with no dispute. When we got to the gate and began boarding the plane, Matthew glared at me and insisted, “I am not someone to be messed with!” I guessed that the Ativan hadn’t kicked in yet.

We found our seats, and I tried to get a look at Matthew’s seatmate. I avoided eye contact with my fellow passengers, whose anxious eyes were all on me, or so I felt, and I gave the flight attendant my speech.

“The young man in 18F is my son and he is autistic. He will be fine once he settles down. Please let the passenger next to him know, and I’m happy to answer any questions.”

The flight attendant smiled at me compassionately, and I could feel my eyes filling up.

Right before takeoff, a round woman in her forties approached me. She had a short frumpy haircut and glasses. Her face was pleasant, but she looked nervous. She was Matthew’s seatmate. She said she had heard about autistic people, but what should she do? What should she say? Is he brilliant like that guy in Rain Man?

I told her that he probably wouldn’t talk much and would look out the window most of the time. I asked her to let me know if there was a problem.

Things did settle down once we were in the air. I spied on Matthew from time to time but could see only the top of his head. The flight attendant stopped by a few times and told me he was doing great. I casually glanced in his direction on the way to the bathroom, and his seatmate gave me thumbs up. I even dozed for a while, and everything seemed under control.

Matthew and I found each other after filing off the plane in Philadelphia. The plan was to meet his teacher Guy at the gate, and I would turn around and fly home. I usually rented a car and delivered Matthew to school myself and returned to California the next day, but I was needed at home by the rest of my family, who were still all reeling from the agitation of Matthew’s visit.

As we looked for Guy, I heard running footsteps and a breathless voice calling “Matthew’s mom! Matthew’s mom!”

I turned around to find Matthew’s seatmate with a big smile, looking exhilarated.

“Matthew was great!” she exclaimed. “He talked to me the whole time and showed me his yearbook. He wanted to know all the states I had been to. You have done such a great job with him. He is so nice! It wasn’t at all what I expected!”

Guy appeared, and Matthew’s face lit up. It was almost more than I could take. Once it was time to say goodbye, Matthew let me hug him, and then he pulled back and looked at me, still clutching his yearbook.

“Stop crying, Mom. Be happy.” I watched Matthew and Guy walk away until they disappeared down the escalator toward baggage claim. I took a breath and called Peter.

“He’s here. Flight went well. I’m boarding in 45 minutes.”

“It was a long break,” Peter sighed, “you must be so relieved.”

Relieved? Maybe. Strangely empty and lost was more like it.

It wasn’t at all like I expected.


Laura Shumaker is the author of A REGULAR GUY GROWING UP WITH AUTISM.

She’s the mother of a 22-year-old son with autism, and gives parents a peek at the future.

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