One of the benefits of living in a swing state during an election year is the high likelihood that one of the candidates or a spouse will show up at a rally pretty much right at your front door. That’s exactly what happened last weekend. Ann Romney, Michelle Obama, and Joe Biden were all within shouting distance of our humble town of Saint Johns, Florida.
Some may consider this a curse more than a blessing. But when I found out that Joe Biden was going to be in St. Augustine last Saturday, I was happy. This could be a great civics lesson for our oldest son. I even got his social studies teacher to approve extra credit if he went to the rally and wrote a report about it. So I headed to the local Obama headquarters to get tickets to the event, to be held at a school gym.
When we got there on Saturday morning, I knew we were in for a challenge. Due to heightened security, everyone had to be screened before they could enter—which meant we had to stand in a long line. As soon as he saw the crowd—and how slowly the line was moving—my boy’s face fell, and he began trying to get out of it.
“Please, let’s just go,” he said plaintively. “There are too many people. I’m really tired. You can’t force me to do this. I don’t need the extra credit. [He really did.] You’re just trying to make it hard for me.”
“Sorry, son. This is one of those situations when you have to do something. You’ll thank me later.”
Not This Time.
Normally, my boy would ramp up his protests, accuse me of a nefarious plot against him, and come up with some outrageous reasons why this just plain won’t work. But not this time. The fact that we were outside helped. It was a beautiful, sunny day, and the line was quiet. So he wasn’t feeling a barrage of negative sensations. It also helped that I kept scratching his back. He didn’t become cheerful, but neither did he explode.
We spent about an hour in line, moving at a glacial pace. Every now and then, he would offer some protest or excuse, but it was pretty mild. If anything, he just seemed glum. He’ll probably never admit to it, but I think he was intrigued with the prospect of being so close to someone so powerful.
When we got into the gym, my heart sank. There were no bleachers or seats of any kind. Instead, everyone was standing—very close together—and talking excitedly. There were already around 400 people inside, their voices echoing in that hollow, tinny way that only gymnasiums can create. Plus, a loudspeaker system was blaring upbeat music. And more and more people kept coming in. I wondered how in the world my son would make it through this thing.
Reluctant but Resigned.
Not to be deterred, I asked the people ahead of us if they would let us through so that my son could see. There were only a few children there, so they were very obliging: we made it right to the very front of the crowd. Not only did that give us a better view of the dais, but it also helped relieve some of his stress. He didn’t feel as hemmed in.
Still, he looked very uncomfortable. He kept his eyes down, his shoulders bunched, and his hands clenched. He asked a couple more times if we could leave, but I kept massaging his shoulders. This is important, I told him. This is part of our history and heritage as Americans. This is a valuable opportunity for him. This is going to happen. And you are going to write about it.
Considering the crowd and the noise and the seemingly endless wait, I was impressed with how well he was doing. His protests were meek, and he met my determination not with an equal and opposite force but with reluctant acceptance. Part of me felt bad for subjecting him to all of this, but I just couldn’t pass this up.
Are You Fired Up?
Not long after we got to the front, a series of warm-up acts graced the dais. A few local officials spoke, a campaign volunteer gave a personal testimony, and an Anglican priest offered a blessing. Each speaker (except for the priest) asked a variation on the question, “Are you fired up?” And, predictably, the audience responded with huge shouts and thunderous applause. I don’t know why I thought of it, but I almost instinctively placed my hands over Richard’s ears with every eruption—and then promptly returned to my massage as soon as the noise died down.
After about 20 minutes of these opening acts, it was announced that the vice president was about to come out. Just then, my son turned and pled with me, “Please, Dad. Let’s go home. I can’t take this any more. My stomach hurts. My head is killing me. My eyes are so sore.” He didn’t sound desperate, but he was clearly getting more upset. “Come on,” I replied. “This is what we came to see. He’s coming out now. Keep breathing and try to hold it together.”
Negotiations Proceeding Apace.
Then came the magic. He didn’t push back. He didn’t break down. He didn’t lash out. He strategized. “How about this?” he asked. “Let’s stay for just 15 minutes more. I can say I saw him, and I’ll have enough to write about.”
I was floored. My son was experiencing a huge sensory assault, but he was fighting it. He was engaging his intellect, not just giving in to the emotional cascade. At that moment, I realized that he wasn’t negotiating with me. He was negotiating with himself. He was telling himself, “You can do this. You don’t have to give in to the noise and the fear and the anger.”
I really wanted to hear the whole speech. I really wanted my son to shake the vice president’s hand. Heck, I wanted to shake his hand! But I couldn’t pass this up. “It’s a deal,” I said. With that, he turned back to the dais, tense but determined, while I continued alternating between massaging his shoulders and covering his ears.
Vice President Biden came out, flashed his toothy grin, and launched into his stump speech. And through joke after joke, through zinger after zinger, through applause line after applause line, my boy stood there, sad but focused. Not once during that whole time did he try to back out of our deal. Not once did he try to break away. Not once did he turn around and try to beg his way out of this. He made it through 15 grueling minutes, sullen but intact.
He Talked Back!
As soon as the time was over, we turned and left. Pushing through the crowd, we both heaved a huge sigh of relief. It was over. My thumbs were sore from all the massaging, but I was so proud of my son. It was the first time I saw him talk back to the fear and anxiety. It was the first time I saw him separate himself from the symptoms of ASD. It was the first time he saw himself as a fighter and not a victim. I saw him take an important step toward being an independent young man who wasn’t defined by ASD.
I didn’t tell him all of this right then and there. He seemed too battle-weary for another discussion. But I could tell that he sensed the victory as well. There was a new spring in his step as he walked into the sunlight of a beautiful autumn afternoon.