Here is Grayson, my sixteen-year-old Autistic son, on his second day of work. No, he’s not the kid sitting on the stool with the blurred face. He’s the one hiding behind the white “Skip the Line” sign. A family friend has entered the movie theater, so Grayson has ducked out of sight until she has gone.
“It was natural,” he later explains, shrugging indifferently, and then I have to explain why it was not.
“How would you feel if you walked into a theater and the person who was supposed to be taking your ticket hid from you?” I ask.
“It would be weird,” he snickers with a raised eyebrow (as if speaking to a moron), and then sloowwly connects the dots. “Ohhhhhh, I see,” he replies, freshly enlightened, “It’s weird to hide from people when you’re working.”
After a long belly-laugh ending in tears, I take a serious moment to reflect on the significance of the day. My son – the one I never expected to live past his fifth birthday due to an apparent affinity for darting into traffic, the one I had to peel off my leg all the way through grade school, the one who still follows me and talks nonstop through locked bathroom doors – that kid applied for a job two weeks before his sixteenth birthday just because “it felt right.” That kid walked into the theater for his interview ALONE because “it would be weird” if I came with him. That kid – the one who hasn’t worn anything but sweat pants with elastic waistbands since, well, basically forever – donned a pair of slacks with a little silver clasp and a button (that he still struggles to fasten), and wore them without complaining, simply because “that’s what you do when you have a job.” And that kid, who has only recently been allowed to stay home alone, walked into his first day of work by himself, without even a backward glance, because, “well, not to be mean, but you might embarrass me.”
Never have I ever so welcomed that well-worn phrase from one of my teenagers.
Several weeks prior, I sat through his four-hour orientation (so I, too, am technically qualified to work at the Metrolux). Grayson had never done anything of the sorts without me, and I wasn’t sure whether he’d bolt through the front doors in a rage, the way he’s done so many schoolyears prior. I squirmed in my seat when the topic of sexual harassment was brought up in the cheesy 1980s training film. Even at sixteen, Grayson has no clue about the birds and bees, and as far as he knows, the word “sex” simply refers to gender. Onscreen, a perverted manager with a thick, caterpillar mustache scooted a young employee out of his way by grabbing hold of her waist and murmuring a sultry “excuse me” in her ear. The scene closed with a deep-voiced narration, “To be safe in the workplace, just keep your hands to yourself.”
Shortly after, we found ourselves in the projection room. Grayson, an avid movie buff, was geeking out over witnessing the inner workings of a theater, and I watched my son (who has ZERO spatial awareness) squeeze through the crowd for a better view. He sidestepped, hands held high above his head as if pressed up against a building on a narrow ledge, and his motions struck me as odd. I had never seen him work so hard to avoid knocking into people. Soon enough, he worked his way back to me in the same awkward manner and loudly whispered in my ear, “Mom, I tried real hard not to do sexual harassment. Did I do good?”
His innocence often overwhelms me, simultaneously revealing everything that is right in this world – and also missing. He possesses a purity long-lost and buried, and I deeply aspire to his level of simplicity.
I watch him get ready on his first day of work. He has planned his whole day around his three-hour shift. Taking no less than four showers, he eats promptly at 2:45 (to avoid getting hungry), then takes yet another shower at 3:15, and remains locked in his room until exactly 3:30. I call to him at 3:29, but he refuses to budge – I had said we would leave at 3:30, he informs me, and 3:30 means 3:30, not 3:29. He speaks in that same voice of disdain, implying my ignorance. Once in the car, he enters the address on his phone and proceeds to rush me the whole way, conceding that maybe I know what I’m doing when we arrive at 3:55 – precisely on time.
I sit in the car long after the double metal doors swallow him up. The lump in my throat makes me feel like I just dropped off my preschooler at work. What if he needs me? What if he gets scared? What if he has to use the restroom and can’t rebutton his pants? Will he remember to cover his mouth if he coughs? Wash his hands? I call my husband to confirm whether it’s safe to leave, then slowly roll out of the parking lot, looking back over my shoulder several times. I fully expect to see Grayson chasing after me, wildly waving his arms, flagging me down because he’s changed his mind as he’s so often prone to do. But those double doors remain shut until 7:01, exactly one minute after his shift ends.
Grayson plods to the car, feet dragging and head hung low, while the apprehension rises in my chest. Has someone been cruel? Does he hate it? Is he going to get in the car and EXPLODE? I brace myself for the worst and he hoists himself into my 4Runner, buckling up without a word. I begin firing questions as fast as I dare, knowing full-well how overwhelmed he is feeling.
Me: So, how was it?
Me: Were you nervous?
Him: No. But my legs were shaking for some reason.
Me: Was the person who trained you nice?
Him: Yeah. His name was Joe. He gave me knuckles and told me to try to speak clearly.
Me: (breathing a silent prayer of gratitude for Joe)
Him: I did what you said, mom. I tried real hard to make eye contact with everyone. But I’m pretty tired now so I’m just going to not talk for a while.
Me: (with hot tears swelling in my eyes) Okay, buddy, that’s fine. You did great. I’m so proud.
We arrive home, and he walks straight to his room where he hangs up his uniform. I’ve never seen anyone take so much pride in a faded burgundy polo. He places it centrally in his closet, where it won’t touch another shirt – he doesn’t want it to get dirty. I observe, more fully understanding the meaning of “sacred.”
Several days later, I text his elementary, middle school, and high school teachers, “Grayson recently started his first job. I never thought we would see the day and never would have without your help. His victory is all of ours. Truly, it takes a village…”
There have been many days that I’ve felt like ducking behind a sign to avoid seeing someone I know, so I stand amused and amazed at the audaciously authentic life my son dares to live. There have been weeks I’ve struggled with motivation – lingering in my elastic-waisted sweat pants far too long – and feel inspired by the way Grayson innately knows when it’s time to put on a pair of button-up slacks and get to work. And there have been seasons when it’s been hard to look people in the eye because of the emptiness I feel inside. Yet I am in awe of the way my autistic son forces himself to meet a stranger’s gaze and feel even more humbled by his honestly – how he openly admits when he’s tired and needs a moment to sit in silence.
I can’t quite get past the shock of Grayson’s first job. It holds within it the shimmering promise of normalcy I’d surrendered so long ago. Hope floods in, replacing my fearful “what ifs” with possibilities, and I wonder, “What if he’s able to get married someday? What if he can learn to drive? What if he is capable of living independently?”
I marvel at the invisible timeline that resides within Grayson – the way he just knows when the timing seems right, the way he marches forward without looking back. Furthermore, I marvel at the One who has instilled such an unknowable way of knowing within my son. I feel inspired to trust beyond my small way of thinking, to see farther than my limited line of sight. For, how much more will He, who nurtures the sparrows and lilies of the field, care for my son with His tender-loving mercy?
I will cherish this photo of Grayson forever. Whereas I initially saw a boy humorously cowering behind a sign, I now see a man-in-the-making – one who is courageous enough to try, to step out, lift his gaze, speak clearly, fumble with buttons, and risk being laughed at. I see one far nobler than I: my sixteen-year-old man-child, just striving to be worthy of a faded burgundy polo.