A series of sketches for parents of children and adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder, their relatives, caregivers, and friends.
Chapter 03 (Read 02 and 01 here.)
Birthday Party – Texas Roadhouse
Angela pulled me aside, concerned. We were by the outdoor grill at Hope Ranch. “Zero woke me up this morning, hungry,” she said, “jumping up and down on my bed like a child.”
“We didn’t get a file on this kid,” I said. “Why is he here?”
“Because his dad brought him, special delivery, with a big check. Harland – that’s the dad – asked to see the camp director. I am the camp director. He asked me if I’d met the Lord. I said no. Then he asked me if we had an alpha male here at the camp.”
“Someone who wouldn’t spare the rod?”
“I guess. I had to bite my tongue. If we didn’t need the money … Look. I don’t think the boy’s autistic. Just a sweet, mixed-up kid. The dad’s the one who needs a drubbing.”
“We need a medical and psychiatric history on Zero.”
“Go for it.”
I walked to the BBQ pit to meet Dr. Harland Stoker, Ph.D., Department of Agriculture at Missouri University. Colonel Sanders in a straw cowboy hat.
“I’m Dan, fund raiser, chaos coordinator and kid wrangler.”
“I’m Harland. You in charge here?”
“About as in charge as I’m gonna get,” I replied. “Your son’s a bright kid.”
“Sharp as a tack.”
“What’s his disability?”
“Doesn’t have one.”
“So why is he here?”
“To get a job, like your ad said.”
“Can he work?”
“He worked for me. Agronomy. Rice harvest. Best hand I ever had. Quit to go to missionary school. Quit that, too.”
“He has an autism diagnosis?”
“Yep. And half a dozen others. He’s figured out how to behave in such a way that the government’ll take care of him.”
“Is he violent? Has he ever harmed anyone?”
“No,” answered Harland. “Been in a fight, though. Tried to take a baseball bat away from a bully who was attacking a little kid. No good deed goes unpunished. ”
Zero called from the horse barn. “Dad!”
Harland barked back to him, “I’m having an adult conversation.” To me: “Talk your ear off, that kid. Re-incarnation, energy fields.”
“What about his mom?” I asked.
“She passed the pearly gates, and none too soon. I’m gettin’ married again tomorrow.”
“We’ll take him for a month trial,” I said. “Beyond that we’re going to need a clinical history.”
“I’ll send his file,” said Harland.
“I’ll pray for you and your son,” I offered.
“And I’ll pray for you,” said Harland. “If he can’t make it here, just cart him to the homeless shelter and drop him off.”
That night I took our gang out to dinner. I whipped my red Honda CRV, loaded with kids, out of the Hope Ranch driveway, spewing gravel, punched into the traffic stream, and careened west on Farm to Market 1431, bound for the Texas Roadhouse.
“We’re gonna die!” screamed Zero, pulling his cap over his mullet. He was riding shotgun, navigating with my iPhone. Behind him, in the back seat: Annie, loaded with necklaces; Ben, my 25-year-old son, fingers jammed in his ears; Goat boy, a pumpkin-headed shaggy blond wheelbarrow of a kid, angling for an apprenticeship at the veterinary clinic. In the cargo seat, in heavy rimmed dark glasses and entranced in an iPad paint program, eighteen-year-old Van Go, doodling dinosaurs. And Hamster, who speaks in iambic pentameter and fancies himself Shakespeare.
I switched on the CD player: All You Need Is Love.
“I don’t agree with that song,” said Goat Boy.
“What else do you need?” I asked.
“Hey, li’l critter,” screeched Annie, picking up on the animal theme. “I want you to spell mouse. M-O-U-S. But what's on the end? A tail! Hey, hey, hey …”
Zero opened the vanity mirror, pulled a strand of curly black hair from under his cap and arranged it over his right ear. “Would I look betta with a boy or a gull?” he asked. Everyone ignored him. I pulled up to the stoplight at Bull Run Road. “Which way, Zero,” I asked. “Right?”
“Your wight or my wight?”
“They’re the same.”
The light turned green. I screeched right.
“Look on the bwight side,” said Zero. “At least there’s something to wowwy about.”
We possied through saloon doors into the Roadhouse: wood plank walls, mirrored beer posters, back-lit rainbow bar, peanuts spilling out of tin buckets, and took our seats around a table. Annie stomped to the country western band. Zero watched the line dancers: two servers – college-age kids – clapping hands, slapping thighs. The cowboy, a beardless youth, T-shirt cut to reveal his underarms, tight jeans, boots. The cowgirl, long flowing hair, green vest, thumbs hooked in her blue jean pockets, shaking her breasts. I felt renewed, relaxed.
The cowboy strutted to our table, waiter pad in hand. “Howdy ‘pokes. What’ll ya have?”
Zero: “I’ll take the gull.”
“She’s not on the menu.”
“A Gween Wussian then,” said Zero.
“Got an I.D?”
“I’ll show you mine if you show me yours,” said Zero, displaying his knack for sexual innuendo.
I was proud of the kids that night. That they did not act like inmates let loose from the asylum; that they took turns ordering; that Ben did not grab the bottle of ketchup and gulp it down like soda pop or put peanuts in his ear; that Van Go did not insist on a McDonald’s hamburger and fries; that Annie did not scream or stomp or fidget or scratch her bird’s nest of a hairdo with both hands. That no one threw peanuts, or removed his or her clothing. And that the green-vested waitress bringing the desert cart, Natalia, seemed amused.
Zero handed her a napkin with his phone number scribbled on it. “Call me,” he said. “I like meeting new people.”
“Yeah,” she said, winking at me. “You make a great first impression.”
Annie sang a tune from Disney’s Aladdin:
Don't stop now,
Don't try to hide it how
You wanna kiss the girl!”
The waitress, Natalia, bent toward her. “Are you Annie?”
Natalia: “I have a surprise for you.”
She took the top off the food flamer, revealing a birthday cake, and set the candles blazing. Ben leaned over to blow them out but I restrained him.
“What’s your wish?” I asked.
Annie, smiling through tears: “Friends.”
I raised my iced tea glass, toasting. “To friends.”
Annie: “You’re my hero, Dr. Burns.”
I put one arm around her and one arm around Ben. “Happy birthday, Annie. Happy birthday, Hope Ranch. We’re going to live …”
She blew out the candles and finished the sentence.
“ … Happily ever after!”
Dan E. Burns, Ph.D., is the father of a 29-year-old son on the autism spectrum and the author of Saving Ben: A Father’s Story of Autism. Dr. Burns is a Contributing Editor to Age of Autism and serves on the Executive Leadership Team of Health Choice, advocating for vaccine-injured children and their parents. As a writer, Dan inspires parents to organize businesses and communities where their adult children on the autism spectrum can live, work, play, and heal. As proprietor of Appleseed Ventures, he is developing and marketing the Fountain of Life, a small indoor aquaponic system for teaching ecology and growing herbs.