My weekends often revolve around my son Nat. He’s 28, and autistic. We have a routine. Usually we walk somewhere around Boston, and we always get a sweet snack of some kind, usually ice cream at one of the dozen or so J.P. Licks stores around the city.
Last weekend was no different, but got complicated in a few ways. The weekend before, I had suggested that we drive a short distance, and then start walking from there. Nat loves his routines, and is deeply suspicious of changes (more on this later!), and so he didn’t want to do that. We’ve long known that advance notice can help with changes like this, so we said we would do it next weekend. We even wrote it on his weekly calendar, “Different walk.”
My idea was that we could drive to Back Bay, walk down the Esplanade along the river, to Charles St, where there is a J.P. Licks for ice cream. That would be about two miles of walking. I had a vague plan that we could take the T back to the car at that point, but I had not made this explicit.
The alert reader at this point will raise their eyebrows about “vague plan,” and you would not be wrong to be concerned...
The day of the different walk rolled around, and the weather called for some rain, but my weather app said it was a ways off, so we set out. Nat was fine with the plan to drive to a walk, because it had been on his calendar. I took a small umbrella to be prepared.
We drove to the Esplanade, and started walking, and a light rain began. No big deal. I gave Nat the umbrella to use. Nat usually walks ahead of me. I realized his shirt said “Greater Boston” on the back, and I thought of getting a picture of him in the rain and labelling it “Wetter Boston.” I took a few different pictures to entertain myself as we went.
Then the rain got heavier. We were about a mile in at this point. Ice cream was still ahead of us. We huddled under a shelter and waited. But the rain wasn’t stopping. The weather app now indicated that the rain was here to stay.
Should we push on, or turn back? I ask Nat about it, and of course, he wants to stick with the plan which by the way includes getting ice cream, so why even consider anything else?
Now we both need the umbrella, so I put my arm around his shoulder, and show him how to put his arm around my waist, and we head off. We try to avoid the deeper puddles, but some are inevitable. Nat is a fast walker with long legs, but in this tandem configuration, he’s taking smaller steps than I am. With my arm around him, I can feel how taut his body is. Is it always like that when he walks? Or because of the rain? Or my arm around his shoulder?
We take breaks under whatever shelters we can, and I finally get this “Wetter Boston” shot to commemorate the deluge:
We dodge the construction of the new pedestrian walkway over Storrow Drive, take the old pedestrian walkway over Storrow Drive, and finally make it to J.P. Licks. We get ice cream, we eat ice cream, mission accomplished?
It’s at this point that things start to go wrong...
Nat has been participating in this plan, but I think the difference in the plan, and the rain, have been slowly bothering him. And he knows that I am stressed out about the rain, and the impossible job of staying dry. As soon as he is done with his ice cream, he begins laughing really loudly in the J.P. Licks. Loud enough that everyone in the store looks at us.
This laughing is not a new thing. It is not him being really amused by some internal secret joke. It is an explicit attempt to aggravate me, to push a stressed situation even further. If it happens in private, sometimes we can just ignore it, or even join in, as a defense. But a public setting is a different matter. That laughing is very effective at pushing a stressed dad to a possible breaking point.
Some back story: on a previous ice cream trip a year ago, Nat had started laughing like this while in the middle of eating. I saw it for what it was, and knew that I had to react with a consequence that would get Nat’s attention. I picked up his half-eaten ice cream, threw it away, and walked out of the store. He followed me out, and was very upset. He made a lot of noise on the street, which was horrible and embarrassing, but at least I had shown him that there are consequences. I had won that battle.
That past incident is why this time he waited until after his ice cream was done. He’s autistic, he’s not stupid. I can’t throw away ice cream he’s already eaten. So now I have no leverage. The best thing I can think to do is to walk out of the store, and keep the umbrella, and maybe the rain will bother him.
It doesn’t. Now we are walking down Charles St (a busy tourist destination) in the rain, me with an umbrella, him trailing behind laughing as loud as he can. People look at us, I am used to that. He’s being loud enough that a workman comes out of a store and asks if everything is all right. Nat ignores him, I bark “Yes!” over my shoulder, and keep walking.
At this point I have to admit that I lost this laughing battle. We stop, and I get Nat under the umbrella. I point out that it is still raining, and a long way back to the car. I suggest that we can take Lyft back to the car. “No!” says Nat. We could take the T. “No!” Mom could come pick us up? “No!” I try talking about this for ten minutes while we huddle in a doorway. Nothing will budge him from the original plan.
It could have been that if I called a Lyft, he would have gotten in and been fine. Or he would have gotten in and been upset, but we would have gotten there. But he really seemed prepared to dig in and throw a fit about it. And to be fair, it was a surprise change in the plan. He wanted to walk back, and we were already wet. All we had to do was walk two more miles in the rain, huddled under a folding umbrella.
So we walked two more miles in the rain, huddled under a folding umbrella. I was tired, and wet. I was frustrated and dejected about the laughing incident. We were late for lunch, so in spite of the ice cream, I was hungry.
The afternoon weather was delightful and sunny, observed while resting indoors. Fun fact: two weeks earlier we had had another surprise torrential downpour that resulted in me getting completely soaked, so the novelty was wearing off. Another fun fact: Nat’s middle name is Isaac, which means, “He will laugh.” Choose names wisely.
Sunday we were going to get haircuts. Our hair cutter is in Brookline, right across the street from a J.P. Licks. As you have probably guessed, our routine is to get ice cream after the haircut. Before we went, I said to Nat, “We can’t get ice cream after the haircut, because you laughed too much in J.P. Licks yesterday.” My wife Susan was very worried that this would cause a scene later, but Nat accepted the news somberly.
Nat did great at the hair cutter, no problem at all. When we left the shop, Nat walked over to the crosswalk. I said, “Where are we going?” He said J.P. Licks. I said, “No, we can’t go there, do you know why?” He said, “Because you laughed.” (Nat still confuses me/you pronouns.) “Right, so we can’t go there.” Again, Nat dealt with this calmly and seriously. I hoped that the consequence connection would work to prevent future incidents.
At this point, hard-hearted behaviorist that I am, even I felt bad for Nat. Despite Saturday’s struggles, Sunday had been perfect. But the laughing is bad, and needs to be countered. I love Nat, and want to have fun with him and make him happy, but I also need to help him keep his behavior within acceptable bounds.
I compromised: “We can get a candy bar at CVS.” And so we did, Mounds for me, Milky Way for him, and a sunny drive home.
• • •
Update: Today is sunny and gorgeous, great for a walk. After posting this, I turned to Nat, and said, “How about we drive, then walk, then get ice cream, then take the T back to the car, then drive home?” He said, “OK,” and we did. Storrow Drive, Charles Street, the exact route I had tried last weekend.
He checked in with me a few times along the way to make sure he understood the plan (or was it to make sure that I understood the plan?) But there was no friction ever. Simple as that. You never quite know what you’re going to get.