Section of the Berlin Wall on display at The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.
The truth of the matter is that autism is a lot of things.
Autism is brilliant.
Autism is sparkly.
Autism is amazing.
Autism is a balancing act.
Autism is compromise.
And, some days, autism can be hard.
Communication, on this spectrum, doesn’t always come easy. I have three children and my spectrum kiddo’s brother and sister connect as though communicating were as natural as breathing. Autism is not like that. Connecting is anything but easy. For my spectrum kiddo, communicating can be more like choking. Unnatural, garbled and labored, and not at all as easy as breathing.
At eighteen months, with my spectrum kiddo, there was no turn taking or ball rolling back and forth because he could not fathom why he needed to be bothered when he’d rather play alone. At two, while other kiddos were seeking and exploring, pointing and sharing, my spectrum kiddo was seeking out his Thomas Train, reenacting movie scripts and working on his train tracks…alone… if he got his way. He tolerated us but was happy alone and I tried to continually be the thorn in his side, breaking into his world, but, many times, I failed and my boy won.
He, on his own, doing his thing.
Autism is all of those things…happy/sad, brilliant/challenging, and sparkly/muddy on any given day so although it was not easy on that Spring Break morning when my boy decided libraries were a waste of his time, it was also not surprising. Autism, in my home, has very little appreciation for the more delicate and refined side of life. If it is not immediately gratifying, enjoyable and immensely fun, why do it?
My boy connects with movies.
He connects with Wii-u.
He connects with Marvel.
He connects with the slapstick comedy of greats like Adam Sandler and Kevin James and Steve Carrel.
Comedy, I have found through my boy, is a great leveling field. Comedy is this fabulous place where you don’t have to have great communication skills to be in a packed theater, one of many, and laugh your fool head off at the good stuff from Sandler, James and Carrel. All you have to do is laugh loudly. No developing social skills involved. Just that ugly kind of whole body laughing that contorts you face and helps the drool spit and spill down your lip because you are so engaged and unaware of anything but the pleasure of the funny. I am thankful for the work of those comedians for bringing that kind of ugly-good-laughing to our lives. Autism can be hard but the ugly laughing sure can soothe the rough spots.
Unfortunately, for my spectrum kiddo,there was no movie day on our agenda on that Spring Break morning. This is the life we live. After over a decade on this spectrum journey, it does not surprise me and it certainly does not change the family plans when he balks at stepping outside of his comfort zone and connecting with the outside world as a family. We make it work.
“What’s so important about a library?” He asks as we pack up for the two hour drive.
“It’s a presidential library. It’s where they preserve all the important things from his presidency.”
“So what. Why do I need to see a bunch of books?”
“It’s not that kind of library. It’s not going to be walls of books to read. It will be filled with treasures from his presidency. Air Force One will even be there.”
“Oh. I see. I’ll be happy to stay home with Grandpa.”
“No, Grandpa has already seen it. You’re coming with us, my friend. You’re going to need to come to terms with that and buckle in.”
That is just how it goes and how it was continuing to go during that first half hour of the Reagan Presidential Library tour when I first saw him. Standing in the display room, looking at memorabilia, I had spotted my boy across the room and was walking over to him when I saw the man looking back at me as he guided his daughter and her classmates over to the exit door. He was simply a parent volunteer with his daughter’s class but he was more than that too.
I reached my boy and, now at a distance from the man, I quietly asked my boy, “Did you see who that is?”
“The man in the white jacket. It’s Adam Sandler, buddy.”
“What? Is that really Adam Sandler, Mom?” And when I started to hear the excitement in his voice, I also remembered how loudly my boy’s voice can boom in those moments when his lack of social savvy becomes evident. Whispering, when excited, is not what we’re good at.
“Quiet voice, buddy. He’s with his daughter and her class so we aren’t going to bother him. Pretty cool though, huh?”
His smile said it all. It wasn’t the fakey smile he used at beach the day before when mom was in a picture taking frenzy and asking him to smile for pics with his siblings. It wasn’t even the kind of on-demand smile he used earlier that morning when we took pictures in front of the remarkable piece of the Berlin Wall on display in the library garden.
This smile was pure joy.
We watched Mr. Sandler walk out the door and with no one near us, he and I smiled at one another and let it sink in. “Mom, that was Adam Sandler!” My boy repeated. I reveled in my boy’s smile. That pure-joy-kind-of-smile is not always common place in our world so I soak it in while I can. Seeing your boy find his hero doesn’t happen every day so you take it slow, you drink it in and you enjoy the moment while it lasts.
As we gathered up his grandmother and brother, we shared our news and walked out the door to the next section of the tour. His little brother was marveling at our discovery as I was noticing Mr. Sandler once again, up ahead of us, nearing Air Force One on the next section of the tour.
I repeated my warning to my boys, “We can’t talk to him, okay? He’s with his daughter and her class so we are going to respect that and let him be dad today. Understood?”
It’s funny how life works itself out. It was a slow day at the library. At Air Force One, it was only Mr. Sandler’s group and us and, as it happened, he was the last person in his group and I was the first of our group.
I meant it when I told my boys that we were going to let him just be a dad with his daughter. I meant it and yet there was this screaming place inside my head that wanted to thank this man. To let him know that, despite the silliness that others may see when they look over the breadth of his work, what he does matters on so many levels. My internal battle struggled with wanting to tell him that he takes something that is very challenging in some moments and fills it with laughing…even ugly laughing. I wasn’t sure he knew that the kind of laughter his comedy ushers into our lives levels the communication field and allows moments of utter delight in days filled with a multitude of challenges.
And that is the struggle that was filling my head as I stood next to him. Wanting to be respectful of his parenting role and yet every fiber of me screaming inside because I wanted to say thank you. And, I’ll be honest, my want to thank this man won out over any amount of decorum I might have otherwise practiced.
It went something like this:
“I understand you are with your children. I just wanted you to know that what you do matters. My son is autistic and while communication can be challenging, he connects with you and you bring such laughter to our lives.”
Mr. Sandler: “Where’s your son?”
Me: “He’s with me but I’ve told my boys that you are with your children and they are not to bother you.”
Mr. Sandler: “It’s okay. They can say hi.”
My boys were beside the rail, a foot behind me and I ushered them up. Like I said, no one was around us so there was no commotion. My spectrum kiddo walked over, and Mr. Sandler shook his hand. The first words out my boy’s mouth were not a kind “hello” or even a standard, “how are you?” Nope, my boy’s first words to Adam Sandler were, “Hey, do you know my friend, Joe Clokey?”
A quick witted Adam Sandler told my boy, “Tell Joe hello.”
Joe Clokey happens to be my best friend and a great friend to my kids. I explained this to Mr. Sandler and how Joe’s father was the creator of Gumby and Pokey and now Joe is not only the keeper of all things Gumby-related but he is also our dear friend.
I asked if he would mind if we took a pic and he was very kind. A keepsake my boys will always treasure and is now framed on their walls.
As we finished our pic, he began to walk back over to his group but joked with my boys, “Hey, you boys be good and don’t go stealing the plane, okay?”
To which my very literal spectrum boy replied, “Well how would we do that since it’s not even in working condition?” Yeah, my ever honest spectrum kiddo treated Adam Sandler just like anyone else and gave him no slack.
To which an unfazed Mr. Sandler replied, “You two boys, don’t you go hot wiring Air Force One, okay?”
I marveled at his kindness. I see a lot of pics of Adam Sandler and he’s often gregarious and larger than life and it occurs to me that those images of him run so counter to our experience. He was quiet, reserved, and small in a way that made him feel like a dad more so than a movie star. Just helpful and well meaning and kind. Autism has it’s rough moments, it does, but comedians like Adam Sandler help usher laughter into the hard days with their gift for comedy and silliness and they help autism to find moments that are easy and fun and scattered liberally with that drooling kind of ugly laughing.
For that, I thank this giant of a man from the bottom of my heart for giving one spectrum kiddo the thrill of a lifetime and for saving Ronald Reagan. That one moment of grace he shared with us, kind-hearted and generous, transformed what could have been a day of utter boredom in a presidential library my boy clearly did not want to see, into a day that will now be forever etched with joy into his memory. The day Adam Sandler saved Ronald Reason and transformed what could have been a forgotten day of drudgery and complaint in my boy’s bank of memories into one epic, sweet memory this spectrum kiddo will cherish the rest of his life. Thanks to Adam Sandler, my boy may never see Ronald Reagan quite the same way again and will probably carry a hint of that pure-joy smile every time a history teacher speaks of our 40th president.
Thank you, Adam Sandler, for so much more than you will ever know.
Sparkle On, my friends!