A Regular Guy: Growing Up With Autism

Hello! I’m Laura Shumaker, a new member of the 5MFSN team. I’m the author of A REGULAR GUY: GROWING UP WITH AUTISM (www.laurashumaker.com) It tells the story of raising my autistic son, Matthew, from babyhood to young adulthood. The story that I’m sharing today will introduce you to Matthew, and the weeks to come, you’ll meet the rest of my family and our community, and learn how we’ve been affected by my very special son.

“Do you want me to come in with you while you get your haircut?”

”No,” replied my 19-year-old son Matthew. “I want him to think I drove here by myself.”

When I suggest that he remove the junior sheriff sticker from his t-shirt before he goes in, he refuses.

“I want him to think I take care of bad guys.”

Matthew is autistic, and wants to be a regular guy in the worst way. But he is crippled by a social awkwardness that, try as we have, we can’t train out of him. Earlier in the day, we had been to the dentist, where Matthew read “The Care Bears Go to the Dentist” while waiting. To look at his face, you would think he was reading “Paradise Lost.” I sat next to him with a straight face while the packed waiting room stifled laughter. And who could blame them?

Most of the people in the waiting room have seen Matthew around town and wondered about him. They have seen him at the skateboard store, pretending he works there, and at the hardware store with his large hands wrapped around a bottle of weed killer, studying the label earnestly. They have seen him pushing a gas-powered lawnmower around town with a weed whacker and a leaf blower stacked on top.

What is with that kid?

Matthew doesn’t want just to be a regular guy. He wants to be the guy, the poisonous plant and weed expert, and the lawn care authority of our community near San Francisco. He’s been known to approach strangers with warnings about deadly nightshade, oleander and water hemlock. Some snicker and walk away, others show a glimpse of understanding and stop to chat. They make his day, and I know my smile of gratitude makes theirs.

“He would be really good looking if her weren’t autistic,” my twelve-year-old son says of Matthew, and as unkind as it sounds, I know what he means. Matthew is very handsome, with a tall and wiry frame, broad shoulders, and sandy blonde hair. His eyebrows arch dramatically to frame his brown eyes, and his jaw is square and masculine. But his exaggerated expressions and body carriage set him apart from the regular guys he would like to identify with. His forehead twists with intensity, he smiles too suddenly and too widely and his hungry-for-friendship gaze is desperate. He doesn’t pick up on subtle social cues, like when to step back, when to change the subject from poisonous plants to anything more universal, and he doesn’t understand that it is not cool to ask a girl if she has ever had a seizure. He likes to wear dark socks and sandals, shorts and a t-shirt that says Shumaker Landscaping, with our phone number below. The phone number, of course, is not for soliciting business like Matthew would like to believe, but for identification purposes.

“Is this Shumaker Landscaping? There is a man mowing my lawn, and I already have a gardener. Could you please get him to stop?”

There are times when I squirm, like the day Matthew insisted on taking his weed whacker to the hardware store for repair. “Let me handle this” he barked, holding me at arms length while I tried to clarify his request with a baffled sales guy. I stood back and smiled lamely while the two muddled through the awkward exchange. In the end, we walked out with a brand new piece off equipment. Matthew didn’t seem to notice the behind the scenes payment, and the triumphant smile on his face as we left the store was worth far more than the fifty plus dollars that I paid for his shiny new garden tool.

Matthew has been attending Camphill Special School in Pennsylvania since he was sixteen, a year when he decided that he should drive a car like a regular guy and drove my car through a wall in our garage. There were other close calls. One day during his freshman year at our local high school, he observed a guy pushing his girlfriend flirtatiously and then tapping her on the head. After trying the same move with too much force, I was summoned to his school where he was crying in the principal’s office. “Joe did it to Sue, and she liked it!” My husband and I came to the conclusion 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 school could provide.

But the good news is that Matthew is thriving at Camphill, and is an important part of the community of disabled people he lives with. He goes to class, cooks, and does his own laundry. He prunes trees, tends an organic garden, and takes care of the grass. During the winter he shovels snow gleefully, and has become fascinated with weather patterns in the Northeast. And he has friends. When he graduates from this school, he hopes to live in the Camphill community in Santa Cruz, California.

But he’ll be home for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and if you’re lucky, you might spot him walking around town with his garden tools, rain or shine, just a regular working guy. His mother is the blonde hiding behind the wheel of her Toyota Highlander, or behind a bush, keeping her eye on her first-born son. Just a regular mom with a giant lump in her throat.


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