"I’m a mom and a therapist because when this happens, you become a therapist”
We wait on the musty platform for the tube.
The real-time indicator reads two minutes — like it has for the last two minutes.
We lean against the wall, my friend and I, heads turned to the great mouth.
Where is the train?
In front of us, a little boy, four, maybe five, stamps on the platform. He jiggles his feet, pulls his mother’s arm in the direction of the yellow line, throws back his head, and guffaws.
I’m about to get annoyed — it’s irritating, this stamp-pull-laugh, and dangerous. Why can’t he behave himself? Why can’t his mother control him?
Then I notice something around his neck. A lanyard with small words: Autism Awareness. Pinned to his chest is the ubiquitous blue badge, more often seen on older people, people with disabilities: Please offer me a seat.
I look over at my friend. She’s seen it too.
The train finally thunders through the tunnel. We get on just after the mother and son.
We watch as the mother points all over the train. Pole. Seat. Doors. Map. She leans down to his eye level, explains, and the boy with the huge, dark eyes smiles.
Doors open. Doors close. The mother talks to her son.
“You’re so patient,” my friend says, when she finally looks up.
“I’d be dead if I wasn’t,” the mother says baldly. “He’s just four. I have another autistic child, she’s two.”
Silence in the car. Louder than the roar of the train.
“I’m alone,” she adds, matter-of-fact. “Their dad left us last year, when my daughter was diagnosed.”
A mom stays. Because that’s what mothers do.
“But oh, I had to learn patience. I do most of their therapy sessions. You think this is patience, you should see him in session.”
My friend shakes her head. Whoa.
“Listen, they wanted £600 for the sessions. I couldn’t pay it. I had to learn how to do it myself. I’m a mom and a therapist because when this happens, you become a therapist.”
The boy taps her arm. He signals something with his hands. “Look, he sometimes still communicates with his hands,” she says. “Last year he was completely nonverbal. Now he’s almost four, and he speaks so much, chitter, chatter, on and on, sometimes I wish I could turn him off.”
We laugh, relieved she can joke about it. An older couple sitting nearby laugh too.
As if in response, the boy starts. “I got water,” he tells us, indicating his bottle. “She got a sandwich.” He gestures to my friend. He points at me, “She got glasses.”
“What’s your name?” I ask him.
He glances at his mom. “Andres,” he says at last, slow and proud.
“Y’know, I wasn’t able to take him on the tube,” she says. “He was too scared. Then we talked about it, we prepared. And he’s fine.”
The train cranks into a station. People flood in. A woman gives Andres and then his mother a look and huffs off.
“I got him this,” she indicates the lanyard, “but people still don’t understand. He’s not in a wheelchair so they don’t think he needs a seat.”
I want to take her hand, tell her she’s doing her best, forget about the others. But she’s got her own conviction, this woman.
“Listen, you can’t wait for people,” she says. “If I would, where would I be?
“Sometimes people come to my house, they see the laundry that needs to be folded, the dishes, and I’m on the floor playing with my children, making sure they don’t kill each other, that they’re safe and happy. If the laundry’s what people want to focus on, good riddance to them, I’ve got a door.”
We murmur assent.
Andres is playing with her hand. She seems not to notice. She’s like a geyser, so much to get out.
“This morning we went shopping. Andres needed a coat. We look around, and he insists on getting a pink coat with frills. Obviously a girl’s coat. He tries it on, looks in the mirror, he likes it. He’s getting it. I go to pay. The cashier asks me conversationally, ‘You got a little girl too?’
“ ‘It’s a three to four, it’s for him,’ I say.
“She looks at me like I fell from the moon.
“ ‘But he’s a boy,’ she says.
“ ‘I know,’ I say, and off we go.
“I know my son, if he decides he wants a pink coat, it’s the only coat he’ll wear. In this role, you’ve got to adapt to them, because they’re not going to adapt to you. They can’t adapt to you,” she explains earnestly, looking at her child and squeezing his hand.
Our stop is coming up. My friend, opportunist that she is, whips out her phone and asks the woman for her number. Maybe she can talk to other mothers, she’s a woman in the trenches who can inspire others.
“Bless you,” the woman says to her, as though she’s nothing special. Just a mother.
We get off the train. Andres and his mom roll on into the city.
There are so many questions I’d have loved to ask. How do you keep doing this? Who is your support?
We find our way through the underground maze and step out. Shake our heads, blink in the sun after the dark of the subway. Outside it’s gold and orange and crimson; there’s a brisk nip in the air.
Somewhere below us Andres’s mom is hurtling underground. Working on herself, challenging limits, inspiring.
“They’ll make you proud one day,” I’d said, had to say, as the train shuddered to a halt.
Trite, but I believe it.
“I just want him to have a life, to do something, even if it’s standing in a production line. I want him to be happy,” she’d said, “even with this.” She’d fingered the lanyard as we’d smiled-teared back, and then hurried through the carriage.
I think about the lanyard. How it brands him. How it helps him, even though there are still people who can’t be bothered to look close enough.
My friend and I, we talk of the challenges that everyone can see, that everyone knows about, talks about. And the things we don’t wear on our sleeve. The things no one knows about, the things you can hide. Maybe it’s part of the brachah, or maybe it’s part of the struggle.
My friend taps on her phone. “It’s just £3.99 on Amazon,” she says. “See, you can get the autism lanyard like this,” she snaps her fingers.
Can you really buy understanding, empathy, compassion for £3.99? Free P&P?
“Here’s another one,” she says, showing me.
This one’s more discreet, with a “hidden disability” sunflower design for anyone to don in a public place where they need more sensitivity.
“Or you could customize your own. Look.”
Somehow that makes me laugh.
Customized problems. Maximum 25 characters.
My friend says she exceeds the characters. I think of the things I could never say in two words.
And we stand by the traffic lights, laughing so hard instead of crying.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 679)
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