The S Word

Recently it has been suggested to us—and I’m not going to name any names here, not going to disclose who could have made such a detestable suggestion—that Martin might heal better if we were to move to the suburbs.

We are not suburban people. We are a city family. We pay top dollar for overcrowding, grime, shouting, car horns, and traffic. In exchange, we enjoy multi-ethnic and multi-generational neighbors, quality restaurants, every life necessity within a five-minute walk, the Met, museums, theaters, and a ZIP code where Wal-Mart is not welcome.

It’s not that I look down on my friends in the suburbs. They have vegetable gardens and swing sets and garages. Entire garages all to themselves! It’s like they own weekend houses for every day of the week. But it’s not for us.

Right now I do wish we owned a weekend house, some retreat somewhere. That might put an end to this “move to the suburbs” talk.

Alas, we don’t. We’ve never wanted anything more than our apartment, never felt we would even consider leaving the city.

Will we consider it now? Yes.

Would we actually move? That’s another question.

My initial reaction to the suburbs suggestion was no.  That’s it. That’s the line I will not cross. That’s the thing I will not do.

Yet haven’t I always said there is nothing I would not do to recover my son?

My second reaction to the suburbs suggestion was skepticism. How could that be necessary? Is the urban jungle so bad? I feel fine. Adrian feels fine. The parks are full of healthy kids.

Yet I am not blind. I’ve had my suspicions. I saw how well Martin did when we rented an isolated house in Maine this summer. Autism is now widely regarded as linked to an underlying immune disorder, and persons on the spectrum react poorly to radio frequencies, air pollution, electromagnetic fields, excessive stimuli. We have noisy, dirty construction sites on three sides of our building. Let’s face it: In a city-suburb face-off to produce the most air pollution and radio frequencies, the city would kick some suburb butt.

My third reaction to the suburbs suggestion was trepidation. What if we tried moving, and it helped? What if we had to stay in the suburbs? What if we—liked it?

That’s about when my angry, cynical side chimed in. The suburbs, with their chemical-laden golf courses and manicured lawns? The suburbs, where home lots abut power plants and electric lines? That will help Martin heal?

Adrian and I are wrestling now with the whole suburbs idea. Autism-warrior-me is wrestling with angry-cynical-me. We’re all exploring alternatives. A short-term relocation or other trial run. Making our apartment as safe as possible.

In some ways it comes down to identity. I identify myself as a city person. We’ve changed so much already. I’ve quit my job and given up most of my volunteer work to focus on Martin instead.

But I didn’t work my way through college and law school to become a suburban housewife.

Or did I?

A future in the suburbs for Martin?


When people ask me what treatment “helps Martin most,” I shrug and say, “Dunno. Some combination of what we’re doing, I guess.”

We’ve dragged ourselves through a rough couple months lately. Symptomatic, crabby, stagnated months. Regression. Over the last eight days Martin has improved, and I am praying the road is becoming firm again.

I ask myself, and others have asked me, what provoked this latest months-long slog. My first thought is, “Dunno,” followed by, “Viruses seem to be an issue. Also chronic internal inflammation. Unavoidable radio waves. Adrenal stress. Something environmental? The construction happening directly north, east, and south of our apartment right now? Our own bathroom renovations? Parasites, maybe. Or electromagnetic fields. Or an issue at school,” followed by, “Oh, hell. I dunno.”

Nevertheless, I have two recent incidents that either (1) put the lie to unmitigated “I dunnos,” or (2) demonstrate that I retain an active imagination.

Incident One: Evil Metal Detector?

Two weeks ago we traveled to Chicago for doctor appointments. Over the course of the three-day trip Martin’s symptoms ameliorated, somewhat, and by the time we arrived at O’Hare for an evening flight home, he was able to hold my hand and wait in the security line—without dancing, skipping, wresting his little wrist from my grip, wandering away, or staging a meltdown. He was doing well.

When we arrived at the front of the line, I asked the TSA agent on duty whether I could request that my son be hand-searched, or at least scanned with a security wand, instead of walking through the metal detector. He has a neurological condition, I explained, and I prefer not to expose him to the magnetic field.

The agent seemed bemused by my request but responded helpfully. Because they aren’t allowed to touch children under age 12, she said, my request would require calling a supervisor from another part of the airport. Fifteen or 20 minutes might elapse before he arrived. Should she summon him?

I hesitated. We had half an hour until boarding time, but who knows what “15 or 20 minutes” really means, and I still had to clear security myself (Martin’s drops and pills being hand-searched while I argue/bargain with agents, flashing prescriptions for special foods and liquids in larger-than-three-ounce containers), then move Martin a quarter-mile to the gate.

“It’s okay,” I said. “He can pass the metal detector.”

But it was not okay. Immediately after walking though the metal detector, Martin became unmanageable. He refused to sit while I completed the security check, ran away from the security area despite admonishments, and whined nonstop. When we tried walking to the gate, he could not hold my hand or focus enough to progress more than 20 feet without crying. The flight was delayed (and why would it not be, at a moment like that?), so I took Martin to the Admirals’ Club family lounge, where he spent 90 minutes alternately running circles around the room and collapsing on the floor. After half an hour I retreated into my own world, drinking wine and texting friends for support. Quality parenting, I know. I should mention that the family lounge has glass walls, so dozens of business travelers in the next room witnessed our mother-and-son performance, albeit without sound.

Why did Martin’s behavior change so radically when he passed through the metal detector? Did the magnetic field affect him, or was the decline coincidental, triggered instead to the onset of travel exhaustion or some other factor? The Health Physics Society’s webpage on security-screening safety concludes, “[B]ecause of its nonionizing properties, the magnetic field generated in a metal detector will not cause harm to persons even with routine and/or repeated scanning.” A post on the BabyCenter website states, “Anything that generates or uses electricity, such as power lines or household appliances, produces an electromagnetic field. At the low levels a metal detector emits, this exposure is considered safe for everyone, including pregnant women.”

I will never know for sure whether the metal detector provoked Martin’s symptoms that evening. But something happened around the time he passed through. That much I witnessed.

Incident Two: Precarious Home Library?

Some weeks ago a nice fellow from Healthy Dwellings came over and completed a “healthy home evaluation” for our apartment. He spent several hours taking meter readings, testing water, checking air quality, and so forth. The resulting report showed that we’re doing pretty well, in most aspects.

One exception was radio frequency (RF), those electromagnetic waves that send data wirelessly. Ideally, RF levels should hover below 10 mW/m2. The lowest reading in our home—in Martin’s bedroom, thank goodness for small favors—was 137 mW/m2. In our living room, the level was 540 mW/m2, and in the library, the level topped out at a whopping 3,600 mW/m2. Our home library is an alcove set within the rafters (we live on the top floor) with a large skylight absorbing all that New York City has to offer (windows are the most common entry point for external RF waves). Our home library, because it is farthest away from any other apartment, is also where we keep Martin’s drum set.

As averred, Martin’s behavior improved last week. One particularly unsymptomatic afternoon Samara (babysitter) picked Martin up from school and brought him home, where I was cooking. When they arrived I completed several HANDLE exercises with Martin, watched him play with Thomas trains, and discussed with Samara how calm Martin appeared, steady on his feet and content to play alone. Samara agreed.

Martin then declared his intent to play drums and headed upstairs to the library alcove. Samara followed him. I returned to the kitchen. By virtue of an open floor plan, the library is visible from our kitchen. That helps me keep an eye on Martin and, in this instance, let me observe that, within five minutes of his going upstairs, Martin transformed into a different kid: running back and forth, flailing his limbs, unfocused. I called for Martin and Samara to come back downstairs.

It was another metal-detector moment. What caused Martin’s behavior to change from “with it” to “restless and in his own world”? Part of me wants to blame the library and its RF hurricane—because RF levels, at least to some degree, are fixable. Part of me thinks that I’m blaming the RF levels because I just discovered they are high in the library, and I’m prone to grabbing hold of any factor I can blame when Martin tanks. All of me admits, “I dunno.”


These incidents raise a few possibilities.

First, I may actually have pinpointed some factors that affect Martin more than others. Brain-scrambling magnetic fields and RF waves!

Second, I may have seen connections that, in reality, don’t exist, and I may therefore explore yet more dead-end routes, like refusing to let Martin through metal detectors or blocking RF waves.

Third, the truth lies in some combination.

Doesn’t it always?