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Friday, February 6, 2009

Everybody, GET HER!

People seem to think they know better how perfect strangers should be raising their kids. I believe it’s important to consider what I don’t know before judging someone on what I think I do know.
From the time her son was very small, people have been making nasty remarks and saying hurtful things to my aunt because of what they perceive as her being a bad mother.
I caught a glimpse of a mild case of the effect my aunt and cousin’s relationship has on people during a family camping trip in Colorado. He was 18 years old at the time, and she went into the men’s room with him at a truck stop on the way to the mountains. What people saw was a woman in her 40s going into the bathroom with her adult son. After a minute or two, she came out and he stayed in there. Several more minutes passed. The line to the men’s room was getting longer. My aunt knocked on the door and called her son’s name, ordering him to let her back in.
A man standing in line said something along the lines of, “What do you think you’re doing?”
Maybe at this point you’re thinking the same thing.
My aunt said, “My son is in there.”
“I think he can handle it himself,” the man said with an unmistakably accusing tone of voice.
My aunt said, “He has autism.”
Whether out of embarrassment or fear that this “autism” thing might be contagious, I don’t know, but the man bolted from the truck stop without another word.
My cousin’s autism was diagnosed when he was very little, after his behavior and inability to interact with others confounded everyone for quite some time. Back then, autism wasn’t as easily recognized in children as it is now. My cousin’s condition is severe, rendering him what is often called “low functioning.” Determined to go through every trial right along with her son, she endured situations most would consider nightmarish.
His father split on her, and so she was a single mom, raising one autistic son and his older sister on her own. Dating couldn’t have been easy under the circumstances.
During a period when my cousin was excessively violent, she figured out he was sensitive to several food products. Once she painstakingly narrowed down which ones were affecting him and removed them from his diet, his moods evened out. Grocery shopping was a challenge until she was able to easily recognize brands he could tolerate and stores that carried them.
Bathrooms like the men’s room at the truck stop are filled with wonders for my cousin, who is easily distracted by flippable switches, pressable buttons and turnable handles. It often takes at least two interventions on my aunt’s part to get him through using a public bathroom: One to get him started on the task at hand and one to tear him away from the room when he’s done. In between, she gives him his privacy.
She has had to figure out ways to keep him safe in a world he doesn’t understand, and when it comes to communicating with him, it’s got to be in his language. All education has to be custom-tailored to his way of understanding things. There is no meeting in the middle.
For over 20 years, my aunt has poured her heart and soul into working with her autistic son, and she is committed to doing so throughout his adulthood. What may appear to a bystander as condescending, smothering, or rough, to me is the picture of patience and love. She is one of those unsung heroes you rarely get to meet in a lifetime – let alone share some genes with – and I will always respect, admire, and question the mortality of my aunt.