By Barb Arland-Fye
In the formal parlor of Abraham Lincoln’s Springfield, Ill., home, as a tour guide was speaking, my son Colin’s cell phone rang.
“Turn it off!” my husband, our younger son and I whispered to Colin.
Most people would have complied immediately, out of embarrassment and not wanting to listen to the telemarketing pitch that had interrupted our tour.
But not Colin, an almost 22-year-old man with autism, who lets social etiquette take a back seat to his immediate needs and anxieties.
“I want to listen to it!” he said, holding tightly to the phone with the jabbering voice that seemed to fill the room.
Patrick was able to convince his big brother to turn off the phone.
The tour guide, a gracious man, didn’t skip a beat and had our tour group proceed from the parlor through the dining room and into the Lincoln family room.
Colin was on edge, I could tell by the tenseness his body language projected. I said a quiet prayer, asking God to help Colin calm down and remain on the tour without lashing out at anyone or anything.
And Colin did calm down.
We enjoyed the rest of the tour, and Colin didn’t even stress out over a squirming, noisy toddler in our group, as he typically might have.
The tour guide didn’t say a word to us about the interruption and even took our family’s picture in front of the Lincoln home afterwards and shared additional historical tidbits about the Lincoln family.
Our family was visiting Springfield for an overnight getaway during Patrick’s spring break. Family vacations are a mixture of pleasure and stress, in part because the break in routine raises Colin’s level of anxiety.
Patrick, who is 14, asked why Colin gets anxious on vacation. For Colin, life is safe and comfortable when he knows what will happen from one hour to the next and when everyone follows a certain set of rules and procedures — not to be altered without advanced warning.
My dad used to joke that whenever Colin came to visit, he talked about going home. He wants to know that plans are in place, that there’s light at the end of a tunnel without too many twists and turns.
Steve, my husband, said it’s important to take Colin on vacation and to have him participate in a variety of activities in the community. Such exposure allows him to become increasingly comfortable with variations in routine and life’s fluctuations. Without those opportunities, he becomes isolated and confined in his apartment.
Our Catholic Church teaches that people “have a right and duty to participate in society, seeking together the common good and well being of all, especially the poor and vulnerable.”
Colin wants to participate in society; clearly, he relished receiving a call on his cell phone, even if it was a recording. Now he needs to work on the skills that will help alleviate the anxiety that comes with navigating the realities of today’s society.