Lots of autistic people have obsessions–things they’re so fascinated by, they’re often too distracted by them to function in their lives. I’m not really talking “interests” here. What I’m talking about is like the period of time William wouldn’t leave for school until the street sweeper drove by.
This used to happen every morning. The big yellow street sweeper with the flashing lights and spinny brushes would stop two blocks down at the hydrant to fill up his tank. And William would patiently wait, hoping that at some point, he would leave the hydrant and come our way.
But our schedule never synced up with the street sweeper’s. We always, always had to leave before it would move.
So, every morning, I would wrestle a crying, kicking, screaming, head-butting 6-year-old to the van and into his car seat. And sometimes he would cry the whole way to school. Did I mention that’s a 45-minute commute?
Yeah. It got a little ugly.
With his program manager and therapists working behind the scenes on some charts and motivators and behavioral programs, I contacted the street department. I wasn’t looking for any favors or for anyone to go out of their way–all I wanted to know was the guy’s schedule. Would they mind just letting me know when the sweeper, on average, drives by our address? That way, it’d just be easier for us to be at the right place at the right time, and maybe we’d deal with fewer meltdowns.
What I got was a response from the street commissioner. He invited us to come by the street department so William could look at ALL his favorite vehicles up close, sit in them, and learn all about them from the people who operate them.
Oh my freaking holy crap. Surely not.
To our delight, he was actually serious, so William’s program manager made a chart with some tokens. For every day that his behavior was good, he would earn a token, and when he earned five, we would go visit the street department. And the day he earned his fifth token was the day we met Tom.
Although we saw lots of equipment that day, and William loved every second of it, his favorite is always the street sweeper. And Tom was happy to spend time with me and William, explaining what everything does, how much the tank holds, where it goes, how long it takes for him to sweep the whole city, how it’s different from the old sweeper…it was an information junkie’s dream come true. Just unbelievable.
The next day we made a sign that said, “THANK YOU, STREET DEPARTMENT!” to hang in our window. I worked with William on drawing shapes so he could draw his own yellow street sweeper on the banner. I drew him a road, he drew the street sweeper. When we were done, he started drawing scribbles on the sides of the street I had drawn. I went to take it away, and as I did it, I said, “Oh no, William! What are you doing?”
“It’s dirty,” he said.
“The street sweeper comes when the street is dirty?” I clarified.
“Yes,” he said, nodding like ‘duh.’
I hung it up, and the street sweeper went into storage for the winter either right before that or right after. But when the weather got warm again, Tom started driving by again and waved at us as we stood in the window.
(Us standing in the window, by the way, is no joke. That’s three kids standing in the window, and me standing behind them to make sure nobody hits anyone or falls. So. Four people stuffed in a window waving frantically at the street sweeper. It’s possible you’ve never seen anything like this before.)
After a few weeks of that, he started stopping the sweeper in front of our house and coming to our door to see if William would like to sit in the drivers’ seat for a little bit. That progressed to our current system, which is that he stops by every Friday and lets William “drive” for a few minutes before he moves on with his work.
He always makes sure I know when he’ll be on vacation. If we happen to be gone when he stops by, he keeps trying us on different days, and once even left us a note in the mailbox to let us know that we’ve missed each other a few times, but he hasn’t forgotten about us.
What compassion; what love and grace.
He could have never paid us any attention, and I wouldn’t have thought him rude. He could’ve just driven by and waved, and stuck with that, and we all would have called him extraordinary. But this is a person who saw my son, saw what he could do in bringing him joy, and brought it. Even though it’s hot outside, even though it slows him down, even though he has no responsibility to William at all. He never acts like those obstacles are any big deal. He just likes brightening William’s day.
I am tremendously thankful for people like this. I’m under no delusions that the world will always be (or should be) a place that sees William and tries to make him happy. In fact, at some point, a point I dread very much, he will become invisible. He’ll be someone who gets bumped into on the sidewalk and he’ll be someone who endures snide comments when he tries his best behind a cash register.
He’ll be that person because he lives in a world that’s full of people who have a hard time seeing past themselves. I know I do. I know I never noticed the street sweeper until William was obsessed with it. I just drove by it on the road, thinking about where I was headed and whatever stress or excitement that involved for me. It never occurred to me to give him a nod and a smile thinking, “there’s someone who’s working really hard to make our city better.” I was just in my head. Nothing malicious, certainly. But I would’ve rather thought about myself and my life than see anyone else and notice their humanity.
But that’s where the revolutionary love of Christ hides, doesn’t it? That love that changes everything; that pure love that has the power to stop people dead in their tracks…it’s in the things we pass by and don’t glance at when we’re in our heads.
God grant that I open my eyes and see people. That’s where we find love.
That’s where we find Christ.