The support group for mothers of autistic children met once a month, in an old elementary school.
The women sat at a lunchroom table. I scanned them all, and only one looked as old as me. Ah, well. I was used to being the oldest mother in the room. I walked over to an empty chair, and asked, “Is this seat taken?”
A red haired woman answered, “No, have a seat.”
As I took my coat off, I noticed that many of the women had their eyes directed to the open door in the back corner of the room. Their children must be in there, I guessed, from the noisy laughter and movement that came from inside.
I asked the woman next to me how long she had been coming to the group.
“Oh, I suppose about a year now,” she answered. She grimaced. “That’s when my son was diagnosed.”
I asked how old he was and what his name was. I waited for her to ask me about my child, but she didn’t. Instead she glanced down at her phone.
I tried the mother on the other side of me.
“I’m Kristina,” I said brightly.
“Caroline,” she said, and smiled.
“I’m new. How many people are in the group?”
“Well, there are about 25,” she answered, “but not everyone comes each week.”
“Who is the leader?” I asked, looking around.
“Tammy, but she’s not here yet,” she said.
“Did you bring your child with you?” I asked. “It’s so nice that they offer babysitting.”
“It is and it isn’t,” Caroline laughed. “You’ll see. Everyone’s distracted. Mine is in there. He’s five.”
“I didn’t bring my son,” I offered. “I wanted to see what it was like first.”
“It’s good,” Caroline said. “We have a different topic each week. I think this week we’re talking about insurance and waivers.”
Just then a child ran out of the room, yelling, “Mom!” A teenage girl quickly followed and tried to usher him back into the room.
“That’s why the babysitting doesn’t work. They keep the door open for safety, but the kids run out of the room all the time.”
“Maybe they should have it down the hall in another classroom,” I suggested.
Caroline shook her head. “No, we tried that once.” She didn’t elaborate. “Do you have a son or daughter with autism?” she asked.
“Son. James. He’s ten. He has Asperger’s,” I said.
“Oh, on the high end of the spectrum.”
“Oh, yes,” I laughed. “He’s very smart. He gets all A’s in school, but his behavior is . . . getting hard to handle. His temper is so bad.”
Caroline didn’t say anything.
“And your child?” I asked.
“Non-verbal.” She looked at me pointedly.
I didn’t know what to say. I look down, flustered. When I looked back up, she had looked away.
Just then a tall, slender woman walked in and headed to the podium. “Sorry I’m late,” she murmured, as she took some papers out of her bag. She looked up and caught my eye. “Oh, we have someone new,” she cried.
Everyone turned and looked at me. I felt myself turning red.
“I’m Tammi,” she called. “With an I! And what is your name,” she asked.
“Kristina, with a K,” I said. Everyone laughed.
“Welcome, welcome, welcome!” she chirped. “And did you bring your child?” she asked, taking off her coat. She gestured toward the room.
“Not tonight,” I answered. “He’s home with his dad.”
“How nice,” she murmured. She glanced around the room, counting the people as she went. “18! Big group tonight!” she announced, and we all smiled.
I was tired, I realized, as Tammi with an I! began to read the rules of the group. “No one should give their last name. Everything said tonight is sacred. It should remain in this room. Medical information that is shared should be regarded as opinion, not fact. . .”
Sacred? Did I hear that right? If they started singing “Kumbaya,” I was out of there. I wondered if I can slip out through the back.
But as the night went on, I found myself writing down notes. Each woman who talked seemed to know more than me. They threw out names of organizations and programs with assurance. They rattled off acronyms easily. Every once in a while, Caroline tapped my arm, gestured at my list, and then wrote down the words that go with the letters. I thanked her each time, but it just made me feel bad. I thought about how she got to know each organization. She’s been there. She has gone through more than me. I knew I should feel lucky, but I just felt bad for both of us.
Suddenly one of the kids yelled, “Mom!” from the room at the back. A mother got up with an exaggerated sigh to go into the babysitting room. There was scuffling, shushing, and we all smiled with understanding.
Dana, a woman with a wilting perm and bad teeth, interrupted Tammi with a sigh. “Don’t forget to pay Alissa for the babysitting,” she says. “Last week three people didn’t pay, and I had to talk her into coming tonight.”
Dana continued. “I have something to say about Tillson Health, too. It all sounds good, but they’re not accredited. You put your child in there, and they can’t ever go back to public school unless you want them to repeat grades. We had RayRay in there, you know, but now he’s back in third grade at Beavercreek.”
“25,000 dollars for an unaccredited school?” one woman said.
Dana nodded. “The tuition waiver didn’t even last the entire year,” she said. “If you get anything extra, like speech therapy, that $25,000 is eaten up real quick.” Dana tapped her pencil. “Annnnnnd,” she said dramatically, “their schedule is a nightmare. You have to schedule your vacations at least three weeks in advance, and it has to be approved! Only half of ours was approved. You can’t just follow your other kids’ schedules for Christmas and Easter, because everyone wants those days off.”
“Great,” said one woman. “We were supposed to have an interview there next week.”
“Don’t do it,” Dana said. “It’s better to stick with the devil you know.”
I realized I had been expecting tears, not bitter battle stories. These women were seasoned and scarred. I didn’t want to become one of them! And I wanted someone to tell me what DID work, not everything that didn’t. I already knew what didn’t work -- everything I had tried so far.
And none of these children were like James! How was I supposed to fit in with the mothers whose children didn’t even talk?
I felt my throat starting to get tight. I did feel grateful for the times he said, “I love you.” I did feel grateful for the songs he sang me in the car. I did feel grateful for all the jokes he told. I did feel grateful. But -- I also hated every single time he said I wasn’t his “real” mother. I hated every single time he told me to “$%&* off.” I hated every single time he said he was running away. I hated every single time he said that Emma was ruining his life.
At nine o’clock sharp, Tammi with I! turned off the overhead projector. “Good talk! Good talk!” she said. “Stay for cookies!”
Children streamed out of the room. I thanked Caroline once more. “I appreciate your help, Caroline,” I said.
She was wrapping a gray and black patterned scarf around her neck. She flicked the end of it. “ No sweat,” she said. “Did you like it?” A young boy sidled up to her and put his arms around her leg. She tousled his hair, and then bent to help him put on his coat. He swatted at her hands, but she deftly avoided them, and zipped it up quickly. He patted her face, then caressed it. She pulled his hands down, and stood back up.
“Hmm….like doesn’t seem like the right word,” I ventured.
Caroline raised an eyebrow at me. Her son was pushing her legs, and she swayed a little.
“I mean, it’s just overwhelming.”
Caroline nodded. “Nice to meet you,” she said dismissively, and she took her son’s hand to lead him out.
I considered going over to the table with the cookies. Tammi with an I! was holding court, talking animatedly and giving hugs. She was clearly well-liked. I just wanted to go home though. I didn’t need the cookies anyway. I gathered up my things and started to the door. Sean would be putting James to bed right now, I thought to myself. Maybe Sean would be asleep when I got home too, so we wouldn’t have to talk. He had wanted this to be THE answer. To be fair, I had wanted this to be THE answer. I was looking everywhere for THE answer. But this support group clearly wasn’t it.