Del Sur I: This Completely Sucks—Wait! Did He Just…?

Martin and I have spent last week visiting Adrian’s country of origin and my in-laws there. (Adrian did not join us. Evidently “family duty” falls entirely on me these days.) Back in January, I used each of four New Year activities as a heading for a “Martin right now” mini-essay. Now, a week in South America gives me five vignettes for pondering autism recovery. Without further ado:

Del Sur I: This Completely Sucks—Wait! Did He Just…?

I wasn’t sure we’d make it to South America. Our flight was set for Friday afternoon, first to Miami and then, overnight, farther south. The Sunday previous, Martin asked to leave a class play date early, asserting that he didn’t feel well. Adrian and I weren’t sure whether Martin was ill, or just overwhelmed by the crowd; in any event we took him home, where he felt well enough to ride his bicycle. Monday he went to school and to personal training, where the instructor reported that he seemed tired and “out of it.” He coughed a lot during the night but recovered Tuesday morning and went to school.

Lunchtime Tuesday, the school nurse called me. Martin had a fever. I brought him home, tucked him onto the sofa with his stuffed animals and Disney Junior channel, and kept him hydrated. The special-education teacher who cares for Martin Tuesday evenings opted not to come, because she is pregnant and didn’t want risk illness. I cuddled Martin. I didn’t want to leave him. But Adrian was out of town and I had tickets to the RangersPenguins game.

“…And then I called Samara, his nanny, and asked her to come watch my sick kid. I’m the worst parent in the world,” I told my cousin over our pre-hockey beers at Stout. 

“It’s the Stanley Cup playoffs. There are no bad parents,” he replied, sensibly.

Wednesday morning Samara stayed with Martin while I, hung-over and stung by the Rangers’ loss, headed to my office in Brooklyn. When Martin still had a fever Wednesday afternoon, I returned home and drove him to his pediatrician, who took a nasal swab and diagnosed influenza. I explained that we were supposed to board a plane 48 hours later. Give him Tamiflu, the pediatrician said. No, I responded, Tamiflu is too dangerous. Any other options? You can try Oscillococcinum, but it won’t work, she said. Can we fly to South America? You can fly to South America if the fever breaks by Friday morning.

That gave us 36 hours to eliminate the fever.

I started Martin immediately on Oscillococcinum, which probably I should have done at least a day earlier. Thursday he was still sick, alternating naps with playing, his temperature bobbing. Thursday night I was climbing into bed around 11:00 pm when Martin called, “Oh, no!” He had vomited in (more specifically, all over, and around) his bed. I scrubbed Martin and tucked him into my bed—Adrian was still out of town—, cleaned the mess, and was pleased when he subsequently slept through the night without incident.

Friday morning Martin woke without fever. He still wasn’t 100%. But he stated, adamantly, that he was prepared to get on the airplane and visit his abuelos y tíos y primos. Tentatively, I packed. Martin remained insistent, even as he fell asleep on the sofa. At lunchtime, I conjured a deal: We would go to BareBurger. If Martin felt well enough to eat a full meal, and hold it down, we would continue to JFK.

BareBurger has organic meat and gluten-free sweet potato fries cooked in non-GMO canola oil. Not perfect but, some days, a godsend.

Martin met my challenge, we boarded the flight to Miami, he slept eight hours on the overnight flight to South America, my mother-in-law retrieved us from the airport, and all this serves as backstory to Saturday, because Saturday sucked.

Last February, Martin did pretty well with his paternal cousins. He’s improved a lot since then, socially, so this year I expected instant interaction. I’m so foolish. Saturday, when three of his cousins arrived, including one close to his age, Martin responded by thrusting his face into my mother-in-law’s sofa and pointing his butt in the air toward the other kids. Okay. Haven’t seen that behavior in a while. I covered by saying something like, “Oh, Martin, have you decided to be shy?”

Next, Martin refused to speak to his cousins and directed all comments exclusively to me. I covered by claiming his Spanish was rusty.

Next, my father-in-law attempted to show Martin pictures of a recent family vacation. The cousins snuggled with their abuelo and admired the photographs. Martin stood behind them all and broke into a crying meltdown because he hadn’t gone on the vacation. I escorted Martin to his bedroom, calmed him, set him up for some solo time with his iPad, then returned to the living room and covered by claiming Martin’s fever had returned.

When I have a fever, I cry. Tears flow from my eyes, even if I feel well and am not upset about anything. That’s where I got the idea to say Martin had a fever that was making him cry.

By the afternoon meal, Martin had pulled himself together enough to join us at the table, but he ate in silence and refused to interact. I remarked continually on how unusual the withdrawal was, how really tired and still-kind-of-sick Martin must have been.

All the covering, of course, was designed not to let Martin’s cousins think he’s weird.

Toward evening Martin managed to join his cousins on the sofa. He didn’t talk to them, and they, engrossed in television, didn’t talk to him, either. My sister-in-law, mother of the cousins, deteriorated the situation further by commanding her 10-year-old son, “¡Habla con tu primo! Speak slowly! Stop watching television and speak to your cousin! More slowly! His Spanish is rusty!” The hapless 10-year-old said, “Um, ¿hola, Martín? Hooooooooooooooo-laaaaaaaaaaa, Maaaaaaaaaaaaartiiiiiin,” at which the other cousins laughed and Martin looked confused.

When his cousins finally prepared to leave, Martin re-commenced crying because, he claimed, he wanted them to stay.

Super.

My kid was exhausted, overwhelmed, out of his element, and probably still sick. His cousins, I am certain, thought he was weird.

A couple hours later, with Martin asleep for the night, I dialed Adrian on FaceTime. I decided to spare him the full report and give him instead this 100% accurate, albeit heavily edited, account of the day: “Guess what happened? Martin learned to blow his nose. He was crying and stuffy from his flu, and I gave him a tissue and told him to blow, and it finally clicked. I’ve been trying to teach him for years to blow his nose. This afternoon he managed. Hurray! Everything is great!”

Hiding It

Kenji Yoshino, a law professor, wrote a book called Covering. To “cover,” according to Yoshino, is “to downplay a disfavored trait so as to blend into the mainstream,” and the pressure to cover is universal, because everyone possesses some attributes that society stigmatizes. Subtle coercion to cover, the author argues, imperils even our civil rights, because society penalizes those who refuse to cover, who refuse to mask their otherness for the sake of fitting in.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Yoshino’s thesis, because I exert a lot of energy in “covering.” I hide the fact that I am an autism mom, and when it comes to Martin, I conceal his ASD—the condition that, arguably, influences his life more than any other right now.

As I’ve explained on this blog, Adrian and I have chosen not to be public about Martin’s having autism. Our closest friends and relatives know, as do our immediate neighbors, and Martin’s doctors and caregivers. Beyond that, we’re tight-lipped.

We withhold the information from more casual acquaintances—people who don’t know Martin well but will probably remain in our future social circle—because we believe that Martin will not always have autism. We don’t want anyone’s dealings with the recovered Martin to be prejudiced by his having once had autism. Indeed, we don’t want anyone’s current dealings with Martin to be prejudiced by his currently having autism.

We withhold the information from strangers so as not to suffer their pity. I don’t want Martin subjected to preconceived notions of autism, not even for a moment. And no matter how much I might want special treatment at in a given situation (waiting in a long line, for example, or chasing Martin down in a clothing store), I refuse to allow anyone to think we need special treatment.

So, yes, I cover. I pretend that Martin is tired, or shy, or unfamiliar with the topic at hand, or better at speaking Spanish than English, or better at speaking English than Spanish. (In later posts I’ll explain more about my techniques for concealing autism. I don’t want to make this post too long.) If pressed for an explanation, I use a euphemism. A TSA agent asked me why she needed to hand-search the dozens of pill and liquid bottles I refused to run through the X-ray machine; I said my son has a “neurological disorder” and that X-ray can change the composition of his medications. An acquaintance inquired why we hadn’t tried to place Martin in a private preschool in our neighborhood; I responded that Martin has “some minor attention issues” that we want to “take care of” before kindergarten.

Are we wrong to keep Martin’s diagnosis a secret? Possibly. Through our actions we may contribute to the isolation persons on the spectrum; if we’re hiding something, does that suggest we believe it’s something that should be hidden? We might also be failing to set an example. If we really believe in biomedical recovery from autism—we do—shouldn’t well tell the world to watch our son and bear witness to his progress?

It comes down to parenting. If I were making the choice for myself, maybe I would sacrifice my own privacy, and risk prejudice, in order to set the example. Many “Aspies” are very public about their way of being in order to combat discrimination (and have created at least one organization dedicated to opposing autism recovery). Our son is too young to make that choice, and as his parents we have to err on the side of protecting our own.

So that’s that. For Martin’s sake I am willing, in at least one thesis, to tear at the fabric of our civil rights.

Once upon a time, I was a teaching assistant for constitutional law. What would my professor think today?