I am in the women's change room at the local pool, lost in thought. I'm thinking about a lot of things, but mostly that it's neat to be back, twelve years later, to where the gang took swimming lessons as children.
I think of Erik and how we struggled through level one swimming lessons three times. And I think of him now, 19, game to work out in the gym and then transition to the pool, do laps and head to the hot tub. It's all seamless now. It was painful and lurching back then.
I am deep in thought but I hear the din, at first distant and then foreground, loud, and quite frankly, annoying. It sounds like garbage can lids clanging together but what it really is is a little girl, smashing locker doors closed while her mother gets changed. And she is chanting wildly, enjoying the way her voice echoes as the doors bang shut. Bang. Echo. Bang. Echo.
It is escalating and I realize I've turned around, stared. Or maybe glared. The mom quiets the child. Mom is changing quickly and the child is naked, hopping on the wooden bench. She is about to start the cycle of smashing locker doors again, but she stops and shouts instead,
"There are eight Crane toilets and we are in the WOMEN's washroom!"
"Women's" is accentuated, almost hysterical. Funny. Again, the eight Crane toilets. Again, the women's washroom.
The mom struggles with her bra strap and snaps to the present moment, "Y-Yes, eight Crane toilets, and this IS the women's washroom." She is patient and kind.
The child sings her Eight Crane Chorus over and over, and the mom delivers hers. Again and again. Observation and confirmation; observation and confirmation.
My vignettes vanish as I listen, and in the same instant, I realize that the past has become present. Or maybe I am staring right at the past. I am looking at the former me. Me twelve years ago. I am that mom and the little girl is Erik. But then I notice that the naked girl is not a girl at all; she is a he, a naked boy. And all of a sudden it becomes crystal clear: the child has autism; the mom is making conversation out of apparent gibberish.
But it all makes sense from the child's perspective.
I am a boy in the women's washroom. We have broken a rule. I shouldn't really be here. And it's kind of funny.
Eight Crane toilets is what I have noticed. There are eight identical toilets; they are made by Crane. They are all in a row. The repetition is comforting. I am saying this to comfort myself because we are breaking a gender rule.
And it all makes sense from the mother's perspective, as well.
Being in public is tough but we have to participate in healthy routines. We must leave the house but there is risk involved. My child with autism is disrupting the peace, and for that I apologize, but I am moving as quickly as possible. And as he chants endlessly about the eight Crane toilets, I try to make his observations sound clever, astonishing, regular, normal. I try to model acceptance. Dignity. Bottom line is that I am grateful that he can speak. We are both doing our best. Please know that.
And of course, I do. I am her, twelve years down the line. I am accompanying my 19 year-old son to the pool to make sure it all works out OK... to keep him company, to make sure he swims in his lane, understands hot tub etiquette, to direct him through the outing. He has come so far and is no longer recognizable as "eight Crane toilets" and yet, the facilitator is still there... Although scarcely present.
As I turn the key on my locker I feel grateful that Erik can negotiate the men's washroom on his own. I feel grateful that he no longer counts toilets and gapes at naked bodies. OK, perhaps he notices both but now it is different. He is self-aware and discrete. He knows the rules.
I smile toward the mom and I nod. If only she knew. And if only I could just give her a hug and tell her to keep going and that her unflinching devotion is quite amazing and that it will all turn out in the end.
But I don't, of course. I just keep walking, and the clanging and the chirping voice recede as I head toward the washrooms. And what do I do? I count the bathroom stalls. Eight. Of course. And I check out the make of the toilet, just to be sure. Crane. Of course. I had never noticed either but now I will never forget. Autism is like that. You suddenly see.
Exiting the change room, I hear it for the last time, the sing-song voice, "Eight Crane toilets and we are in the WOMEN'S washroom!" It stays in my head as I swim in my lane. I smile. Eight Crane toilets and we have journeyed so far.
About the Author:
Teresa is a teacher, writer and autism advocate, but first and foremost, she is mother to Erik (18), a young man on the autism spectrum. For the past four years, Teresa and Erik have been writing a mother-son autism article series for Autism Ontario's Autism Matters magazine. The articles are written from both Teresa and Erik's perspectives and offer strategies for building resilience in those with autism and in those supporting autism. Erik and Teresa also create autism advocacy videos under the channel name, "AutismShoeViews". Teresa is working on a handful of autism curriculum projects, as well. Their current mother-son collaboration involves designing a tailor-made transition for Erik from high school co-op work experience to college student. Their working motto for 2017? "I can and I will!”