As Autism Awareness Month (April) nears, I realize of late I’ve not posted much about autism, one of my blog’s cornerstone topics.
But having said quite a lot since 2019, is there really anything new?
The answer? Of course!
There always is, in my ongoing journey as a parent with a special needs kid. At every stage of his development (and mine!), there’s always something to write about.
As long as I’m paying attention. Or if the “attention” is literally calling from the back seat of my car.
Like it did recently.
Just another ordinary carpool day…or not!
You see, every so often I would chauffeur or “hitch” a stranger in my car on the same route to a destination near mine. This happens courtesy of a mobile phone app that connects drivers and potential passengers.
Like a carpool, but paid.
I do it both for the quick buck (roughly half a standard cab fare for the same distance) and occasionally (cos I’m an introvert), for the conversation. Sometimes I do it once a week on my morning school run with my son. Sometimes more.
This week, I had an unforgettable hitch. It took place three days ago. It was unforgettable because neither the journey nor the conversation was what I expected.
And looking back now, I realize it was just the kick in the pants I needed to write my long-overdue autism post.
A mid-week misdirection
It was early Wednesday morning. The usual mid-week school run with my son.
Leaving the house, I checked my carpool app and saw there was a lady near us headed in the same direction looking for a ride.
As always, I gauged the distance it would take for me to pick her up and drop her off and still get my kid to school on time. Good. It was a go since it was less than 1 kilometer away both ends.
And so I arranged for the pick-up. My son and I drove over to the address, fully expecting her to be waiting for us. Unfortunately, five minutes went by while we waited at the pick-up point, and no sign of her anywhere!
Now five minutes may not seem like a lot. But morning peak hour traffic on the highway can take less time than that to build, so I was getting panicky. Where was she?
Taking what must have been my fifth glance at the messages on my app, I saw a new text from her. Seems she had accidentally keyed in the wrong address! She was actually a few streets away from where my son and I were waiting.
A silent journey punctuated by coughs
Quelching my frustration at the unnecessary delay, I swung into action.
Recalibrating my GPS, I followed the new route that took us to her. That took another five minutes as we navigated the ins and outs of our sprawling public housing estate to her apartment block.
Finally, we found her. A short and stout lady, she spoke loudly and apologized as she hopped into the back seat. She then proceeded to say something along the lines that thankfully the wrong address she gave wasn’t that far.
Resisting the urge for a snappy comeback, I quickly drove off in the direction of the highway.
After her initial attempts to chat were met by my silence or monosyllabic answers (I was still feeling frustrated), the car fell silent, interrupted only by her frequent coughing and throat-clearing throughout the journey. (Looking back now, I should have insisted she put on a mask)
Throughout all of this, my son was happily fiddling with the GPS, his fave thing on car rides. Nicely oblivious to his dad’s increasing irritation and gnawing suspicion he was going to be late for school, thanks to this botched pick-up.
To make matters worse, I later learned at the drop-off her initial claim she had the exact change to pay me was untrue. She only had a $50 bill which I couldn’t break!
Clearly rueing my decision to hitch, I was unprepared for what followed as I closed in on our destination.
It happened shortly after I told her I had to drop my son off first or he would be super late for class.
I expected no arguments.
I got none.
“What kind of school is this? Is it for those with autism?”
Maybe it was what she saw as I dropped my son off.
The stern-looking security guard who had locked up the place (we were ten minutes late) grudgingly lifted the gantry as we drove sheepishly in.
Older students on an excursion slowly boarding a coach bus at the pick-up bay adjacent to where I deposited my son with a hurried kiss goodbye.
All I know is after I left en route to her destination, she suddenly burst out: “What kind of school was that?“
“It’s a special needs school. For those with autism.“
It was like I had opened some invisible floodgate, for she suddenly began to torpedo me with a deluge of questions about autism.
Turns out, she had a four-year-old nephew who was being evaluated at a children’s clinic for autism. His mom, her younger sister, was distraught at the prospect, and the family was at a loss.
Didn’t help that her sister was also pregnant with a third child due in two months (she had another boy who was two years old). The possibility that the diagnosis could return positive was filling the family with escalating dread with each passing day.
The poor boy’s mom was also increasingly bad-tempered and often beat her son when he exhibited repetitive behavior that rankled her, like pulling his earlobes continuously or hopping about the house like a restless imp.
In short, the family needed help!
“Wasn’t I train for just such a moment to talk about autism?”
My impatience on the ride that morning was likely my undoing as I found myself caught off guard by the barrage of questions this concerned aunt was asking.
That, and the added challenge that my passenger was mandarin-speaking.
I found myself struggling for many moments to find the right words to explain to her my experience as a special needs parent, and what could lie ahead for her nephew and family post-diagnosis.
Truth is, no two autistics exhibit exactly the same behavior and comorbidities. Thus, I can only share my own journey to reassure her all need not be lost with a confirmed diagnosis. And to do so with the right words despite my broken mandarin. Not quite what I was expecting at 8 am on a mid-week morning!
Funny. Wasn’t I trained for just such a moment? To talk about autism and guide parents new to the diagnosis. Yet there I was. Caught off guard.
And held hostage too! Cos despite reaching her destination already, this passenger continued to stay in the car, bombarding me with a host of questions, and seemingly unwilling to leave.
She asked me how autism affects learning. How it will be when her nephew enters mainstream schools in the country (she and her sister were actually Malaysians who came over for work and eventually settled here and converted citizenship).
Somehow the answers I gave her sounded hollow to me, and I felt really inadequate, not to mention waylaid!
So much for empathy.
What’s really going on?
Eventually, after nearly ten minutes of “interrogation”, I had to tell her I couldn’t stay anymore and had to go. I was supposed to attend a teacher training program that morning and I was already late.
But if I’m honest, all I wanted was to high-tail out of that awkward (for me, but clearly not for her) situation.
So what was really going on with yours truly?
Was it the rocky start with the wrong pick-up point?
Or maybe I had forgotten what a see-saw it was when we were first told of our son’s autism?
Or maybe it was the language barrier?
Honestly, I’ve no idea.
All I know is this never gets easier, this unfinished journey we make as special needs caregivers. So even though I clearly knew more than she, and in the end did offer her some contact info to follow up, it’s still an uncomfortable conversation when it lands unexpectedly on one’s lap.
The best part? She managed to persuade me to pick her up again the next morning. So we could continue the conversation, and I had time to break the $50 bill!
PS It was thankfully better the second time around though I still struggled to articulate myself. But thankfully I did offer her a contact who had better command of the language. Hopefully, she’ll get the answers she needs, and her nephew and sister the support they need.