FINALIST IN THE 2010 NEW RIVERS PRESS MVP COMPETITION
A Buswoman’s Holiday:
Living and Working with the Autism Spectrum
busman's holiday–noun: a vacation or day off from work spent in an activity closely resembling one's work, as a bus driver taking a long drive.
When I was twenty, I stuck a bumper sticker on my bile-colored Datsun Honeybee that read: I’D RATHER BE STIMMING. I loved it for its obtuseness, for the private joke. Stimming is what autistic kids do: hand flapping, head banging, humming or laughing, finger twiddling, spinning toys, waving a piece of yarn in front of one’s face. One day, I stopped at a red light, and a young man on a motorcycle pulled up next to me. Over the drone of his engine he shouted, “What’s stimming?” I wasn’t sure how to answer in the time before the light changed. “Self-stimulation!” I shouted across the lane as the light turned green. “Well, all right!” he said, revving his engine and speeding away.
Around that time, I volunteered at a Saturday recreation program for autistic kids in San Francisco. Beatific Johnny mimicked television commercials. “Johnny, what does Visine do?” we’d ask him, as if he was a dog performing tricks. “Gets the red out” he said every time. Long-lashed, fair-haired David who for lunch would only eat a tuna sandwich, cut in fourths, his Phenobarbital tablet hidden inside. One boy was taller than me and hugged too hard. Another sank his teeth into the heel of his hand when upset; it had grown a thick callous. Arthur, the only one who talked to us adults, talked so much we sometimes had to tell him to be quiet. Most of them flapped their arms and made animal noises. Most repeated what I said to them with a special affinity for the last word of my sentence. (If I said, “Kevin, hold my hand when we cross the street,” he’d say, “Cross the street” or just “street.”) We took them to the zoo, to the beach, to the snow. I knew nothing about special education, goals, performance measures, testing, school psychologists. I wanted to be a teacher. My favorite book in college was Virginia Axline’s Dibs in Search of Self, and I, too, wanted to cure children lost inside themselves.
Before I am a mother, I am a school psychologist in Oakland. In 1984, in my late twenties now, I wear skirts and flats or dress slacks and blouses to work, my thick, blonde hair pulled back in a long braid. I test deaf kids. I test hearing kids. I test kids to diagnose learning disabilities. I test kids to diagnose emotional disabilities. I test poor kids. I test rich kids. I test retarded kids. I test kids with IQs in the 120s and a couple in the 130s. I test to identify disabilities. I test to qualify kids for special education. I test kids in windowless supply rooms with buzzing florescent lights. I test kids in a dank janitor’s closet, the door propped open with an aluminum bucket. I work at elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools. Seven schools my first year. I drive from school to school to school to school, my test kits in the trunk of my Datsun Honeybee.
As a newborn, Benjamin rarely looks directly into our faces. Babies are supposed to prefer human faces to other shapes, but for months he explores the outline of our heads. “He’s staring at our auras,” Pam says.
“Maybe he’s still connected to a higher consciousness,” I say, trying for a joke. But something niggles at the edge of consciousness. Something is off.