Jennifer Byde Myers
It was almost dark when we pulled in to the campground in Ohio. I went to the door of the manager’s office, and the sign said, “Will return 9:00.” I am an eternal optimist (HA!) and hoped that it meant in eleven minutes at 9pm instead of 12 hours later. We had a reservation, called in hours before, but there were no instructions left for us taped to the door. Most RV parks and campgrounds will do this, so you can still find your way in the dark.
As I stood there on the porch, looking back at the RV, knowing that my children were probably yelling at my tired husband because they so desperately want to get OUT of the RV when we stop, I thought I might die of exhaustion. I wilted a little in the heat, and began to survey the campground hoping I could figure out a solution on my own.
Out of the brightly lit laundry room next door, Maddy and her sister Lila appeared. Chattering like little monkeys, they peppered me with questions: Where was I from? How long were we staying? How many kids did I have, and can they go to the playground?
Without waiting for my answers, they told me just about everything they could: parents divorced, mom’s boyfriend has a camper, staying for two weeks, actually 13 days, trying to do laundry, but missing a few quarters. Lila is older. Maddy is younger. They live nearby with their dad. Lila just completed a babysitting course. They have bikes.
And they knocked on the door of the manager’s office spouting that it was “worth a try.”
The manager came to the door, gave the girls some quarters, then looked at me. I admit I was a little embarrassed, wondering if she thought that these not-quite rude, but not well-mannered children were mine.
I told her my name and she welcomed me in to the office/general store, and shooed the girls away. As I checked in, we chatted and she let me know that the girls, while sweet, were not monitored very well, so I should expect to see them at all hours of the night (she wasn’t kidding.)
After we landed safely in our space, I let Shawn put out the slides, put up the jacks and make ready our camp for the night while I took the kids to the park, just an earshot away from our numbered space.
Sure enough Maddy and her sister were there at the little park. Katie made friends immediately, identifying easily with other motor mouths. I let go of Jack’s hand when I found a pile of gravel. He settled down, and went about sifting the land through his fingers, getting back in touch with Earth after so many hours on the road.
He tilted his head to the side, as he often does when he is very interested in something before him. He watched the girls play. He stood up a few times, dribbling pebbles to the ground slowly, then went down on one knee to grab a few more.
By this time it was mostly dark. I could see the outline of the three girls, but could no longer distinguish faces.
Katie lost a shoe. I had been very specific about not taking off her shoes while playing on the playground. I heard Katie whimper a bit. Lilly pulled a flashlight out of her babysitter emergency kit, and searched the grass with Katie. They found her shoe, and Lilly sat with her while she put it on.
Maddy came over to where Jack was playing.
“Hi. Uhm, how old is your boy?” 9 1/2.
“I’m the same age. When’s his birthday?” October.
“Will he play with me?’ Yes. Sort of. Let me explain…
“I’ve never heard of autism.”
Never. heard. of. autism.
There are still people who’ve never heard of it. I don’t remember ever not knowing about autism, but whatever the statistics are, whatever the numbers that people throw out there, the numbers that make autism seem as ubiquitous as heartburn, there are people who have never heard of it, and my family, in this case, will shape forever what autism means, what autism looks like, for this little girl. And this is where I am most comfortable; teaching, advocating, changing the hearts of people one family at a time. If I do this right, Maddy will know that Jack is different, but the same, that he is as important as she is. She will know that he plays and laughs and has a mom and a dad and a little sister, and feelings, and deserves to be acknowledged, and treated with respect in our society.
I answered every question she asked, her stream of words, more river than creek. Some of her queries were hard: How do you know what Jack wants to play? What is his favorite color?
And some were easier to answer, even if I don’t know the answer exactly: So does he understand me? Can he see okay? What is his favorite food? (for the record, we believe it’s ice cream.)
The most remarkable part about the conversation, was that she was playing with Jack the entire time she was asking the questions. When he got up to wander, she followed him, backwards, even lightly touching his hand every now and then, and when he bent to slip his hand in a pile of sand, she copied him, right down to the same crouched position he favors. When he stood to run, making those sounds that Jack makes, she asked if he was happy, because it “sure sounded like happy.”
It was dark now, dark enough that I wasn’t more than two feet from Jack anymore. Shawn walked over from the campsite with a flashlight.
I started to get distracted, the dark, Jack loose from my grasp, Katie chirping to her dad about her new friends, and losing her shoe, and finding her shoe.
Maddy quietly said to me, “I hope no one makes fun of him, ever. When I was younger I couldn’t see out of one of my eyes and people made fun of me.”
I told her I was sorry that that had happened to her, and asked her about her vision now. “Is that why you asked if Jack could see okay?”
“Yeah, I was wondering if we were the same, ’cause I know how it is when you can’t see–when you’re different.”
It was time for us to call it a night. We said our goodbyes.
Maddy walked up to Jack and put her hands on his shoulders, facing him.
“I’m glad I met you Jack. Have fun on your trip.”
The Myers family has just returned from a 4000 mile, cross-country road trip. They documented their journey at www.haveautismwilltravel.com where a version of this essay was originally posted. You can find her, now that she’s home, on Twitter http://twitter.com/jennyalice.