The heat that afternoon was intense. Weather maps across Iowa were deep red, and warnings flashed across the screen. A high school football player on the other side of the state had died from heat exhaustion the week before. Cornfields wilted and shrank into hills of despondent brown.
I was running late as I parked and shuffled to a dilapidated satellite classroom building. I introduced myself to a teacher sitting at a desk and told him that I was there to meet a 21-year-old man named “Scooter” — a childhood nickname, I’d later learn, that had stuck. (I’ve changed all names and some details to protect him and to comply with privacy laws.) I needed a summer job after my first year of grad school, and he needed staff.
My experience with autism had been limited to movies and anecdotes from friends who worked in “the field” — care industry shorthand for post-institutional residential and community-living nonprofits supporting people with developmental disabilities. (“We’re always looking,” the agency had said, and hired me without any sort of drug screening and a cursory, astonishingly fast background check. The drug screening was my only concern while filling out applications.)
The teacher looked like he was close to retirement age and wore a hearing aid. He asked about my experience working with people diagnosed with autism. “None,” I said, and his face dropped.
“Don’t stand directly in front of him,” the teacher said, “and avoid making eye contact. He might perceive that as a threat. He’s very keyed in on body language. Introduce yourself, but let me take the lead.”
I was led to a corner of the room I hadn’t before seen. It was darker than the rest of the space and a few decibels quieter. In the nook, I saw Scooter. He had a stringy mustache and hair with great curling wings. One of his eyes wandered slightly. He sat behind a crescent-shaped table padlocked to the wall at both ends of the curved top. Scattered in front of him were piles of flashcards, jars of beads, toy cars, unfinished puzzles, crumbs from lunch, and a laminated piece of tagboard with a strip of Velcro down the center. As soon as he saw me, his face tightened into a sort of grimace, baring his teeth, but the rest of his face, his eyes, posture, and hands were unexpressive as he blankly leaned out into the dim classroom.
“Well, hi there,” I said, waving. I began to clam up in all of the pits of my body.
“Well, hi there,” Scooter said, and he let out a deep laugh.
The person I was going to meet that day had been a child in my mind. In front of me was a man. A man only two years younger than me.
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(Illustration Credit: Eric Petersen)