A Rain Man Moment

The movie RAIN MAN was released¬† the same week that my husband and I took our three-year-old son Matthew for an evaluation with a child psychologist. He’d stopped talking and was obsessed with lights and wheels, and we were trying to figure out what it was and what we should do. The child psychologist mentioned the word autism. I think the phrase she used was “… probably not autism, but some other pervasive developmental disorder” leaving us hanging on to hope, but wanting something concrete to dig in to.

A week later, some friends invited us to go to the movies with them, not knowing we were concerned about Matthew, and they chose Rain Man. Peter and I studied the character that Dustin Hoffman played, carefully- the autistic man, Raymond.

“He’s nothing like Matthew,” I whispered to Peter, and he squeezed my hand in agreement.

Raymond was severely autistic and lived in an institution. He was obsessed with routine and rocked and screamed when his schedule was disrupted. He had difficulty making eye contact and mumbled amazing facts and figures that had no practical pertinence. When the movie first came out, autism was a novelty-tragic yet exciting. Dustin Hoffman’s character became the definition of autism.

“Autistic? You mean like Rain Man?”

I had no idea at the time that 15 years later, when Matthew was eighteen, I would experience the perfect Rain Man moment.


Matthew and I were on our way to the Philadelphia Airport on a rental car shuttle. I had just flown out from California the previous day to pick him up from his special school 45 west of the city to bring him home for a long weekend. The shuttle driver asked which airline we were flying.

“U.S. Air” I replied.

“No” Matthew corrected me. “United. We always fly United.”

“No,” I said calmly, “United didn’t have the flight we needed, so it’s U.S. Air this time.”

“But it has to be United,” Matthew said anxiously, rocking and flapping his hands. “She’s kidding,” Matthew told the driver “it’s actually the friendly skies of United. U.S. Air is not friendly.”

I saw the driver look at us in his rear view mirror. He had such kind eyes and I thought I might cry.

“Just drop us at U.S. Air,” I said as Matthew hyperventilated dramatically,¬† “and I’ll see if we can change our tickets.”

I knew we could not change our tickets. I had to think-fast.

The door opened and the driver helped us out.

“Be nice to your mama,” he told Matthew.


“May I help you?” said a young agent at the U.S. Air counter cheerfully. Then she saw Matthew hiding behind me, rocking and mumbling United is friendly. US Air is not.

“We’re having a Rain Man moment,” I said, thinking this was the best way to get to the point. It was clear that the agent had no idea what I was talking about. She was in kindergarten when the movie came out.

“He’s autistic,” I mumbled under my breath “and he has a thing about flying United.”

The agent looked confused and a little nervous, as did the folks in line behind us.

“It’s a communication disorder. He’s quirky. He gets stuck on things…” She nodded, glancing at Matthew sideways with an amused look on her face. She got it. I could stop babbling.

“So…how can I help?”

“We’d just like to trade our tickets in for United tickets,” I said, winking wildly.

The agent paused for a moment, glancing back and forth between Matthew and me. I could tell she was getting into the spirit of things.

“Oh! Well, don’t worry, because U.S. Air and United are the same now…really. We merged we’re the same airline now. We just haven’t changed the signs yet.”

“That’s right,” chimed in a grandfatherly type in line behind us. “And the skies are still friendly.” I felt a lump of gratitude rise in my throat.

Matthew looked suspicious, but went along with the story, and began to breathe normally. I gave the U.S. Air agent a hug – it’s amazing how many strangers you hug when you have an autistic son, and took off for the gate.

I thought back to the day I saw the movie. Little did I know what was ahead, and what joy and warmth this Rain Man moment would bring. Little did I know how rich I would feel in moments like these, when I would see beauty in people that might otherwise be invisible to me.


Laura Shumaker (www.laurashumaker.com) writes for 5 minutes for special needs each Friday.

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