A complicated weekend

Sunday 19 August 2018This is five years old. Be careful.

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!), so he didn’t want to do that. We’ve long known that advance notice can help with changes like this, so I said we would do it next weekend. I 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.

Nat, walking in the rain
Nat, walking in the rain
Nat, walking in the rain
Nat, walking in the rain

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:

Nat, in the rain, overlooking the Longfellow Bridge

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 have 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 too-small folding umbrella.

So we walked two more miles in the rain, huddled under a too-small 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.

We finally got home and had lunch. Later, 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 proposed and was rejected 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.


Hi! I can’t find a place on your blog to enter my email to receive future blogs. I love your adventures as I have 16 year old twin boys with autism. Beautiful stories.
@Guzin, thanks! I don't have email notification (and most of my posts are about software...!), but an RSS-to-email service should get you notifications.
I would claim to be neurotypical but the incessant rain and humidity has been messing with me. It's below than 70 F this evening and we're still bickering at each other about how wet it is. From our neighborhood we can say thanks that the BU/Comm Ave. bridge work is done and our weekend walks are a bit more normal again. Thanks for the beautiful post.
Lisa Richardson 2:00 AM on 20 Aug 2018
Ned, I’m so glad these adventures are multi-modal and involve ice cream. I’d blow up a section of a map, either show him before or during, if you don’t want to commit to specific stops. My boy does daily announcements at school and at church, so he announces his arrival at the beach, etc. I love that Nat finished his ice cream first, that’s awesome, and cheeky.
Beaming you and Nat much love and light. Great story. Thank you for sharing. My husband and I were camping this weekend in the Adirondacks (celebrating our friend’s 60th birthday) and on Thursday we had had to hike about 6 miles to get to a beautiful remote lake. Upon arriving at our campsite (a parting among the trees with no running water or latrine or shelter/structure or picnic table) I had a horrible headache, achey knees, sore feet, various tender spots ...and that was before I tried to sleep on the hard ground with body parts falling asleep or becoming very stiff and unhappy (basically a Lyme flare-up from too little sleep that week and too much stress). The following morning the rain began and when the heavens opened we discovered our tent leaked (!!) The rain fly was essentially useless, though I suppose you could say it was “water resistant”. I am normally a lover of nature and would have delighted in the rustic setting complete with loons calling to their mates (as for humans we had the entire lake to ourselves!). But I really struggled to relate to our group that day—-they were all crammed under a tarp that they had strung between the trees at the next campsite over—-I preferred to nap or at least retreat to meditate and try my best to modify the tent so it would leak less. The ground outside was wet, the puddles were getting deeper; the rain paused occasionally but never truly halted. Whenever the sun did peek through the clouds we were suddenly broiling and the earth was steaming...I was struggling with my emotions and amazed at how hard it was for me to “pull my act together”. I knew I should be social—-should help to prepare meals and participate in the “community building experience”—-but the best I could do was “self-care” and sort of will myself to rise to a level of “minimal friendliness” (show up for dinner, offer to wash the dishes afterwards). I worked a lot on self coaching” (e.g. “Yes, you would like to bail now, Kim, and head home before facing a whole night of rain but let’s see if things get better weather-wise, or if someone can think of a clever solution to the leaky tent problem...just take some anti-inflammatories, rub on some CBD cream on your knees and then lie here and see if you can breathe some spaciousness into this situation so you feel less desperate to abandon this 4 day trip on Day 2”). Eventually it occurred to me we had a thin plastic poncho we could use as a tarp over our tent, and I got caught up on my sleep and my aches calmed down and our wet items dried out (the next day) so I bounced back to within the bounds of “normal camper” who could help with chores and participate in a boat ride (we had carried in an inflatable kayak) and visit appropriately with all the participants. But all that takes energy and one needs a surplus of good will and “body happiness” in order to function even at a “good enough level”...my mood swing in the direction of grumpy hermit surprised me by its force and humbled me because I fancy myself a neurotypical woman who is generally hardy and steady and “able to rally-when-needed”. That I had to “indulge in a time out” and counsel myself to not lash out at anyone (or raise my fist loudly at Mother Nature or YellAndScream at the manufacturers of our tent [ahem : REI!] My sense that the alternative to hunkering down was a tantrum makes me relate to Nat, who, we can only suppose, is always managing himself as best he can. He held it together until the ice cream shop but then he let you know you were an incompetent jerk for planning a walk during a rainstorm, that the skies were offending him, that the puddles were not entertaining him, that the umbrella sucked and, basically, he was unhappy and angry and anxious. Oh yah, and hangry too. I can relate! Hahaha. And I can hear that you too could relate...we are all doing the best we can; thank goodness you and Susan are so often able to be “the patient parent” or the “mature mentor” or the “wise teacher”....Nat is lucky to have you (as well as your big supportive, loving extended family). Here’s to lovely weekend walks in Backbay! If you ever find yourself in a storm on Charles Street and Nat agrees to get lunch: Paramount serves a great burger, pancakes or waffles, omelettes etc. etc. Just don’t sit down at a table before going through the entire order line; it is against the rules to “save a seat”.
Ned, the patience, persistence, intelligence and adaptability both you and Susan constantly display when dealing with Nat's autism is extremely commendable. Class is defined as grace under pressure and you display oodles of it. This was a great story and I was with you 100%, right up until you chose Mounds (Coconut-- bleah!)
Ned, love the story and the way you helped us readers follow your thought process as you navigate the walk and Nat's feelings. Thanks!
(and GREAT to see you and Sue tonight!)
Thank you for this
Hi Ned, really great to journey along with you through this challenging set of days. I appreciate you writing this, and I'm encouraged as a father to see your model and approach (though my kids do not have autism). All my best with Nat, and otherwise.

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