Bill Girouard’s son Teddy introduces him to Barack Obama and teaches him enduring lessons of patience.
“Your brother is Autistic.” “ So?!”
When my wife and I were told that our son Teddy is autistic we had two other sons. Both older than Teddy, One was 5 and the other was 7. Our lives could not be Teddy-centric. That wouldn’t be fair. Juggling Ted’s 36 hours a week of therapy with everything else we had going on was just going to be what we had to figure out. Just like every family has their own set of challenges. We had (and still have) ours.
Of course, the effort, kindness and professionalism of Teddy’s therapists both at home and those at his school have done wonders. He would not be where he is today without them. There have been a few duds along the way but no profession is perfect. I do think that in Ted’s case, having his brothers has helped him immensely.
No one has been more important in his growth than his mother. My wife, Karen, is the rock of his life and the glue to our family. While I’m off at work or on business trips, she is there everyday, dealing with every issue, large and small that our four boys can throw at her. Somehow she is able to give each of them the love, attention and care they need. She is a unique combination of drill sergeant and Mother Theresa that our family needs. All five of us boys love her and are beyond lucky to have her.
Teddy’s brothers love him too, but they have never babied him. Having brothers has helped pull him along the way. He role-plays social (and anti-social) behavior every day. Except it’s not role-play. It’s real play. Just because you happen to be autistic doesn’t get you much slack cut when your 5-year old brother sees you playing with his favorite toy. A 7-year old brother doesn’t shower you with loving words when he finds you have destroyed the Lego ship he was building. Not all life lessons come while someone is holding your hand.
When Ted was two God surprised us with yet another baby boy. While Teddy’s big brothers have helped pull him along in their own way, his little brother has helped push him. That’s been great. It’s also true that our 3-ring circus has become a four ring one. Now don’t get me wrong, the chaos that is our home and our daily lives is not a woe-is-us story. I think of it far more as a comedy. Often a comedy of errors, but that’s okay. Life is messy. And in our case, it’s also loud, crazy, and all too often, smelly. If you can’t laugh at it you’ll lose your mind.
We’ve all taught Teddy a lot. And he has taught us too. In his own inimitable way. For instance, he has taught us never to rush. He taught us this on a ferry one day around Easter. As the ferry was about to pull into port all of the passengers got up, gathered their things and got in line. So did we. We were all closely packed together in the stairwell by the exit on the port side. Too close for comfort for Teddy. When put in an uncomfortable position, Teddy will calm himself by doing something familiar. Something routine. For Teddy at that time, it was saying – okay chanting – the A, B, C’s. Loudly. Surrounded by cast iron walls that echo beautifully. Within seconds everyone knew Teddy. Of course we tried to reassure him and calm him. But we weren’t as good as the good ol’ A, B, C’s and the louder the better. We could hear some people audibly sign and groan. That didn’t stop Teddy. In fact, it just made him go faster. My wife spoke above the din to everyone and no one in particular, “Well, April is autism awareness month.” I answered loudly, “I think they’re all aware.” More groan and sighs as the alphabet chanting went merrily on. I looked at my wife and laughed. She did too. We both looked at Teddy while I stroked his hair. Okay Ted, we get it. We’ll never put you in this position again. So he taught us, why rush?
There have been occasions, more than I’d like to recall, where people have not only had no patience with Teddy but also feel the need to be vocal about it. “I’ll help you shut him up, lady.” “Can’t you do anything about that kid?” And the particularly wonderful man who said, “I’ll spank him for you.” This only ever happened to my wife, which is probably just as well because instead of sinking to their level, like I may have, she developed what I thought was a brilliant, near Gandhi-like response. My wife would feign relief and say something like, “Oh thank you, I didn’t realize you had a degree in special needs. How does your training say to handle these types of situations with my autistic child?” That not only shut these people up, it made them feel stupid and ashamed. Which is about right.
He also taught us all true patience and focus. He did this on a long car ride home. Now our family and maybe all families, especially big families, are at their worst in the car. For us it’s six people, four kids, trapped in a metal box. No matter how many toys there are, sooner or later it gets ugly. On this particular ride Teddy had decided to repeat everything anyone said while sounding like a parrot. He ended every sentence with a loud “Squawk!” “Teddy, please stop that.” “Teddy, please stop that. Squawk!” came the response. When everyone gave up and there was silence Teddy said, “Silence. Squawk!” All the way home. Over two hours of “Squawk!” By the end of the ride my cheeks were killing me from laughing so hard. So, patience and me focus. Focus because I still had to drive. Squawk!
Of course, it’s not always funny. The summer he was three it seemed like we apologized to 150,000 families at various beaches. The second one of us wasn’t right with him, Teddy would stomp on another kid’s sand castle, go and hang out with other families who had better snacks, toys, a dog, whatever. We got very good at man-to-man and zone defense. It’s really about the ability to move well laterally and use your body. If college coaches are interested, I have four years of eligibility left. Just sayin’.
That was the same summer that Teddy introduced us to the future First Family and made me a Presidential speechwriter. One day, while taking a walk on the beach we noticed a bunch of black SUV’s pull over and large men with black pants, black polo shirts and earpieces get out. Very inconspicuous. Especially at the beach. Anyway, as we walked along we passed the Obama family. It was a sunny but windy day and there were not a lot of people on the beach and they stopped where there was no one. Or so they thought. As we walked past them I said to my wife, “That’s Barack Obama. The guy that gave that great speech at the convention in Boston. He’s running for president.” This was very early in the campaign. Well before the New Hampshire primaries. “Oh” she said. “Cool.”
Well, we walked by them and down the beach, took some photos of the boys and we walked back to our towels. I was holding the baby and was walking a good way ahead of the rest of the family. I waved the baby’s hand at Mr. Obama and said, “Can you say ‘Good luck?’” Then I said good luck to him. As he and his wife smiled and he said thanks, I noticed that he was wearing a White Sox hat. Being a lifelong Red Sox fan I took the opportunity to give Mr. Obama some grief for that. “You got the wrong color Sox on though.” He laughed and said something I couldn’t hear because the baby was chatting in my ear and I walked on.
A short while later my wife and three other boys came waking along. Teddy decided it would be fun to run all over the future first family’s towels, shooting sand everywhere. Fortunately the girls were in swimming, because Teddy sent the future leader of the free world and his wife scrambling out of the way of his one-man-sandstorm. So that’s how my wife met Michelle long before it was fashionable. Covered in sand our son shot all over her and her husband. My wife apologized and told them of Teddy’s autism and both of them were very gracious. They told her everything was fine and laughed it off as no big deal.
On the campaign trail and in his speech when he accepted the nomination, Mr. Obama often mentioned helping those with autism. I have often wondered if he thought of his experience with Teddy when doing that.
We have told Teddy this story many times and he loves it. He refers to the President as “My friend, Barack Obama.” Whenever we are on vacation and the news reports that the President is going on vacation Teddy asks us if his friend Barack Obama is going to have us come over for dinner. We tell him we don’t think so. He then asks if we can invite him and we say we could but he probably just wants to relax with his family. Meanwhile, every African American male we see from age 15 to 70 Teddy will ask, “Is that my friend Barack Obama?” The guys all smile at him as we tell him, “No, honey, he’s not. Maybe you’ll run into him again someday.”
A few months after covering the Obamas with sand, the first democratic debate was held in New Hampshire. The last question of the night came from a local reporter who said that she couldn’t let all the candidates leave before they answered the question of which team they liked better, the Red Sox or the Yankees. Down the line the candidates all gave their answers. Then it was Mr. Obama’s turn. He said, “The Sox. But the wrong color Sox. I’m a White Sox fan.” I yelled to my wife, “Obama used my line from the beach!” So, yes, I am a Presidential speechwriter.
That was all years ago when Teddy was very young. Not that he still doesn’t have his moments, but we are far better at preparing him for things and dealing with issues that come up. We’re learning as much as he is. For instance, recently we saw Blue Man Group. Dark. Loud. And our seats were in the balcony. Teddy doesn’t like heights. Something he drove home to us at a football game when we sat in the upper section of the stadium. He clung to us like Max, the dog, clung to the Grinch when they were sledding down Mt. Crumpit before trying to ruin Christmas for the Whos. Like the Grinch, we had to peel Teddy off us. By the end of the game he got used to being up there, but we learned. For Blue Man Group we prepared him that we were sitting up a little high. We got there very early and went to our seats. Again, he clung in fear. I reassured him that we would never sit here if it were dangerous. We explained again that this was going to be loud and dark and unpredictable. We gave him earplugs. I let him cling. Gradually, before the show he realized that the theater was not going to collapse, and the bear hug was reduced to handholding. Then the lights went down. His earplugs went in and his grip on me increased. My wife and I had already agreed that if he couldn’t handle this I’d leave with him and we’d go for a walk while she and our oldest son stayed to enjoy the show. That never happened. After a few short minutes Teddy pushed my arm away. He was mesmerized. Ten minutes into the show he turned to me with a huge smile on his face and said, “This is AWESOME! Thanks so much for taking me!” He repeated those words several times throughout the show when he wasn’t smiling, clapping, dancing along and “Shaking my booty!”
After the show we waited for most of the people to head for the exits. See, we learned from the ferry incident. We waited in lobby to meet some of the cast after the show. They don’t break character or talk and we watched and waited our turn (at the back of the crowd – no need to rush) as they posed for pictures with people, still acting like detached aliens. Finally it was our turn. We took pictures of our boys with the Blue Men. Teddy, being Teddy, had a lot to say to one of the Blue Men. I couldn’t hear what, but he obviously made an impression. The blue, detached alien character took his blue hand to his own face, wiped some of his blue paint makeup off with his finger and painted Teddy’s cheek blue. Teddy beamed. As we left the theater into the crisp night air Teddy stopped, thrust he two hands emphatically into the air and yelled, “THANK YOU FOR GIVING MY THE GREATEST DAY IN MY LIFE!”
One thing that’s always amazed me about Teddy’s mind is how he has an instant connection with other autistic or challenged kids. Once when he was in pre-school we asked him who his friends were. He gave us a list of names and then told us that one particular boy was his best friend. He and this boy ate lunch together and would talk about everything. Weeks passed and it was time for our parent-teacher conference. We’re never worried about academics with Teddy. We’re always concerned about the social aspect of life for him so at one point we asked his teacher about that. He’s doing very well she assured us. We told her about Teddy’s best friend and how they talked and played all the time. The teacher stared at us. There was a pause and she told us his best friend was non-verbal, non-mobile, wheelchair bound, and feed through a feeding tube. She told us how much time Teddy spent with him and about how the boy’s eyes would light up whenever Teddy was near. Ted didn’t care to relate any of that. This boy was his friend. The other stuff was just details to Teddy, like having black hair or brown eyes. Just details.
That type of thing has happened over and over to us so that we rarely think of it anymore. Once on vacation there was a boy who scootched on his haunches in the sand making noises and occasionally trying to eat the sand. His parent lovingly and embarrassedly kept wiping the sand off his tongue and asking him not to do that. In no time Teddy was on his knees chatting with the boy and playing leapfrog over him. The boy’s parents were amazed, relieved and delighted that their son would find a friend on vacation. They were very nice people whom we ended up spending a lot of time with that day. A day that they could somewhat relax, chat with other adults and take a few hours of true vacation on their vacation. I don’t know if this is common to all kids on the spectrum. I hope it is. Every time it happens I marvel at just how cool that is. Like there’s another world they occupy that we can’t see. But that doesn’t mean it’s not there.
So, over the 7 years we all have learned. There are ups and downs. There are still outbursts. But less. There are still tantrums. But less. We are far from perfect. There are still times when we yell or get frustrated. But less. We have gotten far better at knowing how Teddy works. He has come a long way in knowing what is acceptable behavior and what isn’t. So have we. We are very fortunate. Teddy does very well at school and is in a class of very kind kids who understand that he’s a bit different but they accept him and he has some great friends. He goes to birthday parties. He plays Harry Potter at recess (He’s Ron). He’s played youth soccer and baseball. None of this comes easy. But it comes. And we are grateful.
Some people accept Teddy. Others can’t. We used to be friendly with some people for whom dealing with Teddy was too much and those friendships have faded away. That’s okay. That’s the fastest and surest way I judge people now. Yeah, I know I shouldn’t judge people but if you can’t be kind to Teddy then I have no use for you. I don’t mean to sound mean. That’s just the way it is. That’s another thing I’ve learned.
We all continue to learn on this journey of ours. Recently, his very literal brain has been having trouble grasping the whole notion of God. One day after church Teddy said to me, “Dad, nobody can prove God is real.” I said, “It’s called faith, Teddy. You can’t see love either but you know it’s there.” He smiled and pointed at me and said, “Yes, I can. You’re right there!”
And I always will be.