Autism Coronovirus public speaking

The Intangible Foe

     They met on a Friday night in August. Katie had been hesitant to take part in this particular social group because history had proven to her that such gatherings consisted mostly of cliques—small clusters of young adults who had been attending the groups for years. No structure, no methodology was in place to introduce new attendees to old, and it was difficult for her to walk up to established groups to introduce herself (and I know I would feel anxious if I had been asked to do the same). I initiated conversations with a few attendees, but I quickly realized that some of these adults viewed us simply as strangers and were hard to engage.

    Nevertheless, on this Friday evening, I explained that since the aforementioned organization was closer to home it was worth a try, and that if the same situation existed as it did with other groups we had previously attended, then we would leave without delay.
My promise vitalized her, and when we arrived, I was pleasantly surprised to find that this gathering was much smaller than the last (which was probably one of the reasons for her apprehension). Parents were allowed to attend the first session only, so I took advantage of the rule and talked with other new parents as I observed Katie. To my surprise, she blended in with the others and found an empty chair between two young men. While I talked with the parents, I noticed that she directed her attention to one young man next to her, and throughout the night they talked almost exclusively.

     The routine was the same for the next few months. I gave Katie an old deck of “Uno” cards, and she and the young man and two others would play for most of the night. I would always arrive a few minutes before the social was to end, and one Friday she introduced me to the young man. Brian is a year older than Katie and has a degree in graphics, and he talked with me about a logo he was designing. I asked him for a business card, and when he complied, I suggested that he and Katie text each other.
     I have been her facilitator most of her life, so my suggestion was second nature to me. I was happy when they did start texting, and it was not long before lunch arrangements were made.

I was happy when they did start texting, and it was not long before lunch arrangements were made.

     Neither my daughter nor Brian drive, but he does utilize the bus to get to work (at a big box store), so they agreed to meet at a local restaurant (local for us—he lives 25 miles away). Their lunch Fridays became a habit, and I would drive Katie to a restaurant they had chosen while Brian would arrive by bus. As they ate (and at times they would walk to nearby stores to browse), I would either find a coffee shop or nearby antique shops to spend my time. Then I would drive him home. He never failed to thank me, and Katie was extremely appreciative of my willingness to drive them.
     The next few months they met several times, going to movies, bowling alleys and restaurants. I felt happy for her when one Friday afternoon she texted me from the restaurant that Brian had asked her to be his girlfriend. She was ecstatic, and on the way home this 27-year old young lady, one who at the age of three could not put two words together, barely took a breath as she recounted each detail leading up to his proposal.

     Their outings continued, sometimes twice a week, and transporting Katie and Brian became a way of life for me. That is, until mid-March.
     My daughter and I had set up a booth at the Autism Alliance conference on March 6 in order to sell my book, From Prompting to Shaping to Letting Go: My Love Affair With ABA and How Being a “Bad Mom” Helped My Daughter With Autism Succeed. Even then we repeatedly used hand sanitizer and washed our hands frequently. I mentioned to my daughter more than once that this type of gathering would not happen again for a long time, that the coronavirus would spread and that it was certain to arrive in Michigan.

My partner in crime.

     Katie’s last day working at the autism clinic would be March 9, and March 13 was her final day at the local library. On March 15, my daughter and Brian made plans to meet at a restaurant, and that was when she finally realized that her life was not to be the same. My husband and I explained many times why her weekly lunch dates with Brian would be suspended, but our explanations did not ease her misery. Schools had been closed the week before, ever since the first case of the virus appeared on March 10, and on March 11 the World Health Organization labeled coronavirus to be a pandemic.
     For her birthday, on March 21, Katie begged us to let Brian visit her in her apartment, which is attached to our house, and she promised that they would stay apart. We reluctantly agreed, and we bought pizza, ate birthday cake and the pair then watched movies, six feet between them. It was hard to observe their awkward goodbye waves when the bus came since long hugs and several kisses had been the norm.

…we bought pizza, ate birthday cake and the pair then watched movies, six feet between them.

     Two days later, Governor Whitmer issued a stay-at-home order, and Katie was almost inconsolable when she realized that she would not be able to see Brian. We tried to set up different methods of staying in touch such as Zoom, Google Hangouts and Skype, but for reasons we still do not understand, nothing worked. They finally decided to each watch the same movie while on the phone, and they have done this ever since.
     On May 12, Katie attended a Zoom meeting for Pages, and she learned about the steps that would be taken to eventually open the libraries. The staff gave no indication as to when the libraries would open, and she was upset and concerned about how she would be able to cope. I tried to reassure her and indicated that she would probably not start back to work for at least a month.
     On May 21, the stay-at-home order was lifted so that two households could visit (albeit with masks and six feet apart), and because the bus was still only transporting riders for essential reasons (work and doctor), Brian’s sister drove him to our house for a visit. Katie wore a mask for the first time, and she listened carefully to our instructions about keeping a distance from Brian. They sat under the large maple (in chairs I had placed several feet apart) and talked, and I was happy that they were once again in each other’s company.
     He has visited twice since then (the bus lines now allow for nonessential travel), and after each goodbye Katie becomes distraught. A few times a week she asks me when everything will be normal again, and I tell her I cannot be sure. I explain that doing our part—wearing masks, washing our hands and keeping a distance from others—is the best way to safeguard ourselves and others. Just as my daughter finds happiness with Brian she must now communicate mainly by phone, and when they are together, they are actually apart.
     Katie has given a few speeches, and she is good at it. At the beginning of March, we had begun discussing what she would include in her presentation, and now that such in-person talks are no longer possible, she is fearful that her goals are now on hold. Once again, when she asks me when she will be able to talk to people about her life with autism, I have no timeline to offer.
     These are the things that worry her.
     Katie longs to hug her boyfriend, and she grieves for her now-postponed plans to speak in public. Her job at the library is different now, made up of components that were unfathomable a few months ago, but she is a quick learner and is adjusting well. As always, my pride for her knows no bounds.

     She is heartbroken, and so am I. Katie has worked very hard to be where she is, and, like all parents, her happiness in life is crucial to me. Over the years I have had to scheme, negotiate and intercede to get Katie the services, education and opportunities she needed. My foes were always tangible—until now.  
     Even though our future is teeming with ambiguity, I have to believe that in the next several months, when Katie invariably asks me to provide her with a time when hugs and kisses with her boyfriend are no longer a possible danger, I will be able to comply.
     I am, after all, her mom.

Feature image of butterfly by Ronny Overhate from Pixabay 
Image of texting young woman by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash.

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