We did our best to adapt to our new surroundings in the Berkshires, a scenic resort area in western Massachusetts. It was hard not to appreciate the long meadows and swaying deciduous trees. As a teenager, I’d spent vacations here with my snowbird grandparents and imagined raising a family in this place: sitting with my young child in a café, or holding hands as we strolled down the sidewalk. I couldn’t have known that life would bring this child instead—this child I compared constantly to my fantasy child, the nonautistic one, even though I knew I shouldn’t.
Ezra turned three that summer, which meant that if we wanted to keep him in speech and occupational therapy we had to put him in preschool. Three seemed young for him to start school. He was talking, but words didn’t come easily. He still couldn’t answer questions, even those that required only a basic yes or no. In the weeks before his first day of class, I lay in bed imagining him in a sea of talking children, all attended to, as he sat there alone, ignored.
When that day came, I packed the only two foods Ezra would eat (Smart Puffs and Earth’s Best cookies); I poured the only thing he would drink (milk) into the only type of cup he would use (a sippy), tucking all of these neatly into his new Thomas the Tank Engine backpack.
Holding his hand, I walked him into the classroom. Other children were kissing their mothers goodbye and walking across the polished linoleum floor to the neatly labeled toy bins and tables. The teacher had already explained her rule that parents must leave.
Even when their children have special needs? I had asked.
Yes, the teacher had said. Even then.
So I walked away, leaving my small, uncertain boy with a ball of Play-Doh.
For the next three hours, I wandered the sidewalks of town, holding Ezra’s baby brother, Griffin, tightly to my chest. I pictured Ezra confused and crying as the teachers forced him to sit on a mat during Circle Time—unable to understand the purpose of this strange ritual.
I returned a half hour before the scheduled pickup time to find the children outside on the playground. The other kids were running and sliding. My son walked alone along the perimeter. When I approached, I saw that his face was puffy from crying. Later the teacher said merely, “He had a rough first day.”
For two months, we continued like this, attempting to inhabit our individual alien spaces—he at school, me in my home office or in grocery stores filled with strangers. Finally we took him out of the school. We tried a Waldorf program, then Montessori, but with the same results. In every classroom, Ezra did the wrong things, or did them the wrong way. It seemed the world could not accommodate him.