One day in our orthodontist’s office, we were saying a not-so-silent prayer that Biddie’s $400 retainer could be replaced for the low, low cost of the Happy Meal it followed into the trash. My neighbor Elsa and her daughter, who we hadn’t seen much lately, were there too. Apparently, orthodontia unites us all.
We caught up on the headlines of each other’s lives, and I casually mentioned that Ace was running spring track.
“Do you drive him every day? Danny ran cross-country in the fall, but my schedule changed, and I can’t give him rides home from practice. Could he catch a ride with you?”
“Do you think he would go with me?”
“I’ll work everything out.”
And just like that, I started a carpool with my 16 year old neighbor. Nothing out of the ordinary for us as carpools are just part of the five kid equation—like laundry and astronomical food bills. But Danny has autism, and that makes the equation slightly more complicated.
You know the saying about being a little pregnant? Well, Danny does not have just a little autism. I was concerned that Danny didn’t really know me. I was concerned that he didn’t really know Ace. I was concerned that perhaps I had gotten not just me, but Ace, in over our heads.
But there was no need for concern. My neighbor, like most moms of kids with autism, hides her superhero cape well. At 12pm, we were chatting it up in the orthodontist’s office. By 3pm THAT DAY, Ace and Danny had met with each other, the track coach, the special ed teacher, and my neighbor.
Unaware of all this mountain moving that had transpired since our conversation, I was still a little nervous. So I sent her a text.
Me: How will he know to find me? Should I go to the coach?
Neighbor: Ace is taking charge of him. It’s cute.
Me: He can be a sweetie. And then his head spins. : )
Neighbor: Spits pea soup and everything? Cool.
It was all so. . . ordinary, and, for the most part, it has continued to be.
It was a little bumpy in the beginning. Ace was not particularly happy with the arrangement. Elsa and I had worked everything out before I even had a chance to talk to Ace—a rookie mistake. My crown was definitely looking a little tarnished.
In our old routine, Ace would walk with his track buddies to the front of school after practice and hang out until I arrived. With the dawn of the new carpool, Ace waited for Danny to come off the track, and I picked them up right there . Ace didn’t mind hanging with Danny, but he didn’t want to lose this social time, crucial to the ultra-social Freshman that he is. With a little time and talking, Ace created new routines with his friends that included Danny. A couple of the moms even started picking their boys up where I picked up Danny and Ace.
We had some smoothing to do with the rest of our crew too. On the first day of our carpool, Eddie (4) shouted from the back seat, “Hey, who are you?” to Danny in the front seat. Eddie’s attempts at first contact fell flat, so Eddie said, “Hey, why won’t he talk to me?” I turned to Danny and said, “That is Eddie. If you say hi, he will probably stop screaming at you.” Notice my use of the word probably, we never REALLY know what Eddie is going to do. So, Danny turned his head towards me and said, “Hi, Eddie.” Every time that Eddie is in the car, Danny says “Hi, Eddie” right away. That’s a suave move for any kid.
Now, our carpool is our new normal. We drive Danny home almost every day. We make sure he has a ride covered on the days we can’t drive him. We cheer him on with Ace’s other friends at the meets. In many ways, it’s just like every other carpool we have.
In other ways, it isn’t. Danny definitely has autism. He doesn’t always respond to us when we talk to him, and he never looks us in the eye (although I have seen him scan the track like a searchlight for Ace). He has the language and social challenges you might expect from someone with his diagnosis. But he is surprisingly flexible and accommodating too. When we have had to make another stop before heading home, he may have been a little concerned, but he rolled with it—a big bonus when you are hanging with us. Overall, he tolerates our noisy, silly, chatty crew beautifully, which is a high compliment.
In the end, I marvel at Danny. In my life BC (before children), I taught preschoolers with autism. In my work, I didn’t see ANY Dannys—kids dealing so beautifully with the noise and havoc that autism can wreak in the life of the mind. But those kids were just starting out after that initial diagnosis, and their families were still nursing broken hearts. Danny has had years of great teachers (and even not-so-great teachers), some fine support from his schools, and don’t forget that SuperMomma I mentioned before. I have no idea how he is doing in school, but in life he seems to be managing really well. This, in the end, is what driving Danny has given me—a chance to reimagine a future for those first students—and I am careful to appreciate the moment.
When I get to practice early, unlike the other moms with their heads buried in their books, I watch the boys as they arc around the track. With their arms pumping and legs pounding, they move freely, easily, and gracefully. Danny is a natural runner, so he is a joy to watch. This moment touches me—beautiful in the moment and the metaphor. This is what I wished for those students way back when. Back then, we talked a lot about what it would mean to have an “exceptional” child with “extraordinary” needs. There was a lot of talk about all the “wouldn’ts”, “couldn’ts”, and “wont’s”. This is what I wanted for them always, even if you couldn’t always tell with the book-length IEPs, even if my imagination didn’t see quite this far into the future. I always hoped they would have a moment like this one—a chance to be, like Danny, extraordinarily ordinary.
By Ellen Williams Erin Dymowski