Laugh

Your son, now 12, has been going through an annoying stage of fake laughter. He gets right in your face, making you angry and tense. One afternoon you are ready to give up. Almost instinctively, you sit next to him and start to match his obnoxious giggles with your own, tickling him and demanding, “What’s so funny?”

Soon you are both laughing together for real and then the laughter stops. Your son looks at you—really looks in your eyes—and you see he is not a monster or a set of problems to manage. He is just a boy trying to connect.

You will remember this next year at his bar mitzvah, because you are determined that he will not miss out on this rite of passage. He will start to giggle during the ceremony and you will summon all your will to smile calmly at him while dozens of guests watch and wait in the ballroom you’ve rented. He’ll finish reciting the prayers he has spent weeks memorizing, and the rabbi will read from the Torah. Of course you will cry.


Book

The crisis storybooks that Senator made for Nat did more than guide him through new experiences. They also helped launch a writing career. Impressed with her ideas, Senator’s mother-in-law suggested she write about them to help others in her situation.

When her first article came out in Exceptional Parent magazine, “It blew my mind,” Senator says. “It was very validating because all of my writings had been so private until then, and had been unsuccessful except for my master’s thesis. (By now Senator had two novels languishing in her attic.) This [publication] told me that I was not only a decent writer, but I had something of value here and that maybe I also was doing a good job as a mother.” That first short article led to more pieces for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and Education Week.

Senator began compiling journal entries about her ups and downs with Nat, which she referred to as “Extreme Parenting.” She shared one such experience in an essay for the Gazette [“Alumni Voices,” July|August 2002]. Unsure what to put in her biographical note, she wrote that she was working on a book about autism. “After the essay came out, I got a few emails and letters from alumni saying, ‘I want to hear about your book.’” Senator laughs. “So I thought I’d better [actually] write it.”

Making Peace with Autism won the Exceptional Parent Award of Excellence, and its publication eventually led to Senator’s blog and second book. “What [readers] tell me is that they feel they’re not alone and they feel like I’ve expressed some of their thoughts and worst fears, and we’re all still standing,” she says.

“Oh how this speaks to me today!” wrote a mother in response to one of Senator’s blog posts about feeling guilty when she didn’t feel like taking a walk with Nat to Starbucks one day. (She knew she would get sweaty from trying to keep up with her son’s fast gait and be embarrassed by his exuberant hand flapping, but she talked herself into the outing.)

Senator’s writings don’t just open a window on her relationship with Nat. They also reflect on the ups and downs of her marriage and the ways that Nat’s whole family has responded to his autism at different points. “It can be a little uncomfortable,” Batchelder admits. “I’ve been at a book reading when she’s read sections of the book that don’t always cast me in a flattering light. But I think her hallmark as a writer has been how honest she is. She gives a whole picture of what it’s like to have a real family dealing with real situations. It isn’t always like a Hallmark card.”

Life may not have been perfect, but “getting validated through the work I was doing definitely made me feel healthier and stronger,” Senator adds. In her second book she underscores how important it is for parents to make time for themselves. “It’s not shameful to do things for yourself, and to want to be the star sometimes,” she writes in Survival Guide. “What’s more, it’s absolutely imperative, not just because we’ll be better mothers after we’ve been good to ourselves, but because we need to do this to be full human beings.”

One mom in Senator’s book turned to motorcycling, another got into scrapbooking. Senator “escaped” by writing about her experiences and becoming politically active. She ran for the local school board and spent five years advocating for special-education spending in her district. A couple of years ago she began to teach writing at Suffolk University.

As her writing evolved from a pastime to a job, Senator discovered another creative outlet in the world of hip scarves and harem pants. “I saw a video of [pop star] Shakira [bellydancing] and I thought ‘Why can’t I do that?’

“I suddenly had this incredible need to learn this dance that younger women were doing, but I also found that older women were doing, too,” she recalls. “There was a whole supportive community that was interested in sparkles and taking classes and nobody was talking about autism.” She tries to be sensitive to any embarrassment that her adolescent sons might feel by picking times when they’re not home to practice her belly rolls. “But the message is I’m not some sort of background figure that’s just there to serve them.”

Just as she makes time for herself, Senator has struggled to nurture her marriage and other family relationships, giving her two youngest sons, Max and Ben (who don’t have autism), the same amount of attention she gives Nat. “My husband and I would really try to do things like we’d split up so each of us could be with Max and Ben without Nat sometimes. Or we’d get a sitter for Nat.”

Senator’s book also gingerly steps through the ever shifting (and often heated) debates about autism’s causes and treatments. Although she empathizes with parents who seek a biomedical cure through dietary changes or vitamin supplements for their children, she tends to finds her peace in the neurodiversity, or autism-acceptance, movement. “I do feel like acceptance of the unusual and atypical is a good thing for people,” she says. Not only does it help build a relationship with the person who has autism, but it also encourages society to be more tolerant. “Maybe this odd guy who flaps his hands and talks to himself is going to be the most dedicated worker on your team, because he doesn’t care about gossiping and doesn’t take a day off. He just wants to work.”
 

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COVER STORY: Notes to a Younger Mother By Susan Frith
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