A change in routine, a different kind of breakfast, an unzipped purse: the smallest thing could set Nat off. When he turned 17, he entered an aggressive phase of screaming and biting his arm when things didn’t go according to plan.

“The back of my hands are bloody and my spirits are low,” Senator wrote in her blog on December 13, 2007. “Big struggle this morning with Nat, especially between him and Ned. Nat would not sit down in time-out this time. That’s a first. His arm is a mess from his biting. He let me clean and bandage it. I was struck by the odd juxtaposition of little blue ice bunny sitting atop Nat’s muscular bruised forearm.”

“I can’t get the image out of my head of Ben racing upstairs to escape as Nat came close to him,” Senator went on. “I tried to make myself calm—invisible, really—so that Nat would not detect my fear. It only worked up to a point. He eventually came up to me, clawing at me. I stood my ground and kept my voice soft, trying also to rescue my hands, but he is very quick and strong.”

While Nat’s behavior upset his parents, it was traumatizing their youngest son, Ben. “I didn’t always feel that I could completely protect him,” Senator recalls. They began thinking that the next year would be a good time for  Nat to work on independent living at his school.

Both Nat and his family needed time to prepare, however. He went to sleep-away camp for the first time and got the experience of depending on others for his needs. Senator would tell him, “Pretty soon, at the end of the summer, you’re going to be sleeping in a different house with teachers. It will be just like camp, but you’re going to be at school.”

Nat also went for visits to the house where he would be living. His parents even threw a farewell party in their backyard, inviting extended family and all of the residents. “That’s my solution to everything—a cake and a moon bounce,” Senator laughs. “We turned it into a celebration.”

In spite of all their preparations, Senator was devastated when Nat finally moved out. “I think it took me almost a year to feel good about taking him back [to his school] on Sundays,” she says. “So much of my relationship with him is about being next to him in the same space because we don’t talk a lot, so having him not there made me feel like ‘What’s our relationship now?’”

With time, she has adjusted. It helps to see Nat come home for weekend visits with a smile on his face as he paces through his favorite rooms. (Senator calls his movements the “Joyful House Stompies.”) Wearing one of his signature yellow or orange T-shirts, “He’s just like sunshine in the house.”

During his time at school, Nat seems to have evolved into a calm and happy young man, no longer plagued by the same anxieties, Senator observes. “He likes new people. He just doesn’t want to talk to them. He loves routines, but he doesn’t have to adhere to them. Most of the time he just is who he is and we love having him around.”

On one recent visit Nat helped to bake the cake for his Dad’s birthday. He can follow two- or three-part directions and answer basic questions about a task like baking, even if he is unable at this point to offer his own explanations for things, Senator says. Nat now also works for a pizza restaurant, where he makes 120 boxes an hour. “He loves it and everybody talks about how he’s the most productive person there.”

For her part, Senator is no longer trying to “fix” Nat. She focuses her energy on helping to plan for his next probable move, at 22, into a group home. She’s not sure how much he thinks about the future, if at all. “I think he probably expects and hopes that things will continue the way they are,” she says. Based on the success of his first move, Senator hopes he will adapt well to the change.


You are on the beach at Cape Cod, where you’ve been coming for years now with your family. Your 20-year-old son is flapping his arms, getting a little too close to other people’s blankets.

Expecting this, you have sat close to the ocean, keeping your back to the strangers who might judge you. Though you still care too much about what other people think, your perspective about what is important has changed since the first time you brought Nat to the beach. You’ve gotten to know other autism parents. You’ve become an activist and an author. (You’ve even got a new novel with your agent. It’s better than your earlier forays into fiction, you hope, telling the story of a gardener with three sons and a messy marriage). But you’ve also learned from your son, who is simply himself, everywhere he goes.

Nat is hard to miss, a smiling young man with a thick mop of blond hair. Now he is talking to himself, and you know that people are staring. Then you think: How could anyone mind? The water is warm for Massachusetts, and you’ve got all this sunshine around you.

Susan Frith is a former associate editor and frequent contributor to the Gazette.

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COVER STORY: Notes to a Younger Mother By Susan Frith
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