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Quarantined: Spending Time with My Adult Autistic Son

Rewatching Disney ad nauseum: It's not just for autistics.

I'm watching Disney's Pocahontas and the main character is singing "You can't step in the same river twice." I don't ever watch Disney movies, but it's the third week of COVID-19 social distancing, and I've been home with my husband Ned and our 30-year-old autistic son Nat. And Nat has gone back to watching his old Disney videos. Today it is Pocahontas.

I've been watching with him every day. We have about twenty actual VHS copies and an ancient VCR. Some of the movies are still good, like Aristocats and Snow White, while some I can hardly stand, like Alice in Wonderland and Robin Hood. I also love the Lion King, but he hasn't gotten to it yet.

To the non-autism family, this probably seems like a strange pastime. Or maybe it sounds like fun-- but just once, just a favorite like The Jungle Book. But often part of autism is a love for repetition. And music. And for some reason, Disney: Even if you don't watch them a thousand times each, the feel of a Disney movie is familiar, and the plotlines are largely the same. An unlikely hero/ine with only one parent, a sudden life-or-death challenge, an unexpected journey, and a chance for the youngster to rise and grow and save the village/friend/parent.

It's not a bad formula. Especially if it gives my son joy. It is a challenge for Nat to find fun. Let me clarify this. I'm sure he enjoys himself a lot, in his way. But there are so many more times when I find his eyes on me, looking for something, asking me wordlessly. It breaks my heart. Every time.

But the thing is, there is too much going on here to keep it broken for long. For while I listen to these songs, which were engineered precisely to cause chills or soaring hearts, I kind of go back in time. Especially today. I look over at Nat, grown now, but still blond and with Disney-like blue eyes. Nat first saw this movie in a theater, at around age 5. That was the first time he ever watched a movie in a theater without a struggle. We had just gone through months of behavioral training with a home specialist, culminating in this triumph.

A few years later, after many forays into film-going, with mixed results, I was beginning to understand enough about Nat's autism that I wrote a book about it, called Making Peace with Autism: One Family's Story of Struggle, Discovery and Unexpected Gifts. Now, I can't help but see that my book, the telling of my story may have been shaped at least a little by Disney. I remember from Nat's earliest days, a greasy feeling seeping around the edges of my every moment, wondering what was bothering me about this beautiful baby, why couldn't I simply enjoy him without being—scared? Because that was what it was: fear. And it didn't go away. Autism broke over us like a terrible drowning wave when he was 2, and would not go anywhere without crying. When he would talk to himself, but not me. When I finally convinced the pediatrician that something really was wrong. The horror when she actually believed me and sent us to a specialist.

I spent the years of Nat's boyhood trying to figure out autism, to understand it, to look it in the eye, to wrestle it to the ground. By the time he was 8 we had two more sons, who were not autistic, but had an entire roster of needs as well. Like all parents, I bounced between the three of them trying to give them happy childhoods, but still so often scared that I was failing.

In writing about Nat—about our family—I found relief. I could sit at my computer and remember, and in the remembering, I could see our lives as stories, with beginnings, middles, and, best yet, endings. In the distance and space of time, I made sense of what happened to us—what was still happening. His expulsion from school. His terrorizing of his brothers. His aching separateness. But also: the successful trip to the movies. Family vacations. The day Nat learned to ride a bike. His bar mitzvah. His first Special Olympics gold medal. His first job. Struggle. Fear. Courage. Growth. And finally, joy.

And, as the story goes, all three sons grew up—all three tall, wonderful men—and eventually left our home. Even Nat, who has lived in group homes since he was 17.

Until now. We took him out of his home during this crisis, to be sure he stayed healthy. And I've been getting to know him again. What he wants to do with his time—still a big question for us because he does not tell us a whole lot. But it's okay. He never really did. And every afternoon, when he reaches for a Disney vid, I get to relive old favorites—Nat at home, old stories, new stories. I can smile because actually, with autism, you can step into the same river twice.

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