We’ve returned, reluctantly, to the States, and I’ve got some time to reflect on the Nicaraguan experience.
I think one reason that Martin felt so at home in Nicaragua—one reason that we felt so at home in Nicaragua—was that Martin seemed to become almost a community project, among both the ex-pats and the Nicaraguans with whom we interacted.
Martin loves to zip-line. We had two adventure parks near us. The first park created a “good-customer discount” for Martin: As long as someone accompanied him, Martin participated for free. The second park held a staff meeting and decided that because Martin is un niño nervioso—an “anxious boy”—he should receive 30% off all adventures, so he could build his confidence through outdoor activity. Martin’s favorite seafood restaurant served octopus with dairy-based garlic sauce. Martin loved the octopus, so the kitchen workers took it upon themselves to create an oil-based garlic sauce just for him. Waiters, gatekeepers, and cuidadors went out of their way to greet him. A local surf shop, owned by a German national, outfitted Martin with a collection of its beach wear, for free, on the basis that having a cool look would help Martin feel good about himself. We didn’t ask for these accommodations. They just happened, because, apparently, un niño nervioso needs a boost now and then.
And in Nicaragua there was never a question about whether Martin could accomplish something, just how to go about it best. I volunteered to send Samara to day camp with Martin, as a sort of helper/aide. Not necessary, the directors told me the first week; he was doing fine independently, they said, and Samara would coddle him too much in front of the other kids. “Would you let me teach your son to surf?” asked one of my coaches at the local gym, also a surf instructor. “If he can ski and skate, I know he can surf.” The third-and-fourth-grade teacher at the international school encouraged me to consider enrolling Martin there. She said, “My background is in special education. I know he’d fit right in, in my classroom.”
Once, when we were out to dinner, Martin asked permission to leave our table and eat with a half-Nicaraguan friend, Alejandro, and Alejandro’s American grandfather. (Martin had his iPad, and the boys decided to play Minecraft together.) The next day I encountered the grandfather and struck up a conversation. “You might have noticed Martin has some social challenges. I hope he and Alejandro weren’t too much of a handful at dinner.” The grandfather responded, “Oh, really? Funny. After your family left the restaurant, I said to Alejandro, ‘Did you see how Martin always extends his hand and introduces himself? You should learn to do that’.”
I was tickled pink.
Not that everything Nicaraguan was perfect. The day camp, with its week-to-week enrollment, had regular turnover, and the second week Martin experienced some pretty intense bullying. I witnessed it myself: At drop-off one morning, at the local park, Martin said hello to a group of five kids. One by one, those kids picked up their backpacks and moved to another area, without acknowledging Martin. Appearing confused, Martin followed them and said hello again. The oldest boy, without looking at Martin, said, “I see something really interesting over there. It’s a tree. I’m going to see the tree,” and left. The other kids promptly followed. Martin, realizing he’d been rejected, climbed onto a swing, alone. When two pick-ups arrived to shuttle the kids to the camp, these kids piled into one truck’s bed—safety advocates, I know! but when in Rome . . .—then blocked Martin from getting in, telling him that all the spots were reserved for their friends. I was standing nearby, so I said, “I don’t think you can reserve the spots. Let Martin sit.” A girl in the bullying group, about seven years old, looked me directly in the eye and said, “No, we can do whatever we want.” (I was taken aback. I don’t know any child who would speak that way to an adult, much less an adult who is a stranger to her! This girl, dear readers, was simply a brat.) I contacted the camp directors the same morning, and fortunately, they jumped on the situation immediately. By Friday afternoon, Martin was calling the bullying group’s ringleader “a kid who wasn’t kind to me at the beginning of the week but then got nicer.”
Taekwondo didn’t work out so well, either. Martin does taekwondo in the States. It’s a gentle program, with three or four instructors for the 45-minute classes and a series of ten belts, which are earned for learning sequences of kicks and punches. Taekwondo in Nicaragua, at the only dojang in town, was serious business: two-hour classes, one master for more than twenty students, four belts awarded at the master’s discretion, and sparring for everyone. Martin couldn’t follow and shied from kicking and being kicked; he’s not ready to spar. The master didn’t seem to understand when I explained Martin’s challenges and often seemed annoyed or frustrated with Martin. Halfway through the summer, when Martin asked if he could “maybe stop doing taekwondo until we get home,” I agreed.
Fortunately, isolated bullying and advanced taekwondo didn’t ruin an amazing summer, or the perception that our Nicaraguan community was rooting for Martin’s success. In the States, I have that perception from the autism-recovery community—but not much more widely.
Martin didn’t accept the offer for surf lessons, I should mention. He says he’ll try surfing next summer. Because we’re going back to Nicaragua next summer. Was there any doubt?