Here in Kansas, a long Indian summer is finally turning the tops of trees ablaze. Chilled rain takes over as the getaways of August are tucked further back in the mind. I wrote this piece during our trip, but keep having the same insights in different settings…

August 12, 2008

It is true that for this kid, summer vacation is all about the hotel pool.

Nina’s explorations of the chlorine expanse and bubbly hot tub are endearing and mysterious. Her preference is to sit on the stairs leading to the warmest depth, feet never touching the so-near floor. I try to dislodge her when others approach for descent, but this day I don’t have to. Right now, the whole spa area is empty except for us.

Without people in her way, Nina does her work. Which is play: more idiosyncratic than the uninitiated can bear. But I get it: she has the space. She has ownership of this place.

And I shared her wavelength earlier this afternoon too—out and about in the negative city. Even to me the roar of bus and bustle was louder and more dissonant by the minute, hurting me, making me want to scream. Nina was screaming all right, throwing herself on the downtown pavement, and even urbanites who see weird stuff everyday stared. I could contain my distress but our daughter is more honest, though not intentionally.

And in this empty, steamy, wet and chemical room I have an epiphany. I will now have to count “other people” as environmental toxins in her life. Because as Nina’s ownership of this moment is challenged, I reap an opportunity to study of the effect. A pair of lovers has just invaded her solitude at the pool.

Luckily they are more focused on each other than her repetitive refrain of Rod Stewart’s, “Every picture tells a story, don’t it…” while she prances the perimeter, rubs her head on a table, explores drains with her feet, or leans against a metal rail to strain her constipated self toward a hopeful swim-diaper. Watching this, my epiphany is simple: tit for tat. If the lovers’ obvious groping is allowed in the water, my strange kid gets to dance in the aisles. But I have decided something else too.

Do the stares and discomfort of strangers count for more than the happiness, where she can find it, of this immune-compromised, sensory-overloaded, heavy-metal-burdened child? I don’t think so.

I’m aware that I have, and will again, betray this revelation from time to time. I’ll side with the strangers when her high-pitched whining frays me to the core, the same notes I’ve heard off and on all day, yesterday, and probably tomorrow. So there’s a point I will have to deal: whose side am I on? What is it worth? To what extent does the prying eye of the collective Outsider influence me?

The girl with autism that I love still roams the wet tiles, less exuberant, almost pacing now. The couple moves to the hot tub—did I detect a “weirded out” look on the pretty brunette’s face as she passed Nina? Still I allow the child to pace, flipping her lower lip with a finger, flapping loose hands at will. The lovers are for one another; but soon there will be more, strangers who can’t process the kid’s actions for anything.

What about her sibling and father?

They would be mortified if at this moment, they returned from shopping, bringing the tinsel of consumer paradise into this spa room where Nina’s jumping on one leg in the shallow staircase of the big pool. Her sister, lately so embarrassed by autistic actions, would flee. Dad would scowl and clench his teeth, aiming a question-mark at me like a poisoned dart, tuned to the needs of strangers to block out the Weird as it manifests in children who didn’t have a choice.

But what happens next is amazing. As soon as the couple moves to get out of the hot tub, Nina moves in, as if she’s seen it from the corner of her eye—the synchrony of passing intents has a certain grace to it. The only bump being my kid’s lack of boundaries. She nearly runs into Ms. Bikini and essentially the woman has to go around her.

I didn’t watch this, exactly.

Normally I would have let out an eagle-eyed yell to Nina, “look out…let people by!” Something like that, and with such a perfected mix of apologetic and harried glances, indicating that I The Parent knew my child transgressed. But I’m not siding with Them, this time. I’ve done that too much in the past.

And what of her father, who’ll any minute see only an obedient daughter waist-deep in the heated stew? Well, I’ve been dying to ask something. When the comfort of other people we’ll never see again, never know by name, and hardly remember tomorrow appears to weigh more than Nina’s joy. And I’m almost motivated to let the entire hotel could hear this imagined exchange between he and I:

Didn’t you also collude in giving her the vaccines that pushed her to this? Didn’t you even chide the hippie parents as stupid for being so unwise as not to immunize? Didn’t we both use common household neurotoxins before it was too late? Didn’t we both gamble on what dangers prenatal may have passed from mother to child? Why must you protect others from seeing the result?

To be fair, sometimes there is only the pressure of Now. Nina ruins bits of vacation that were designed to be communal good times, and the whole family is at loose ends. I fill in the gaps by trying to make meaning of it on the fly. Maybe I’m more interested in autism than her father? Or is there only so much tragedy the other parent can face?

How much do we spare the eyes and ears of the un-afflicted? There’s a difference here from the rights of certain protected classes to flaunt (“we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!”). This even goes beyond pushing for access, the noble trouncing of discrimination. I don’t fight for the right for my neurologically-damaged child to flick the water gently mesmerized, or to toe-walk around a concrete pool. I want people to look and listen—if they will learn from it.

A child was blocked from childhood: by profit-making and secret-keeping along the ethics-free corporate road. I can’t name every industrial chemical or toxic metal that stops her short, but I have enough evidence to know they are there. Who can hold it in their hearts for long—our kids poisoned, as we did to our air, soil, and river? Only the parents who must, and not even each one of a pair.

Maybe there is an instinct to keep tragedy hidden—or maybe it’s the powerful name of a culture’s game. Lookin’ Good, chin up, keep smiling. And above all, enjoy every second of your vacation with the kids.

POSTSCRIPT: Katie Wright’s AGE OF AUTISM post about how her autistic son’s meltdowns sorely affected the family vacation. Ms. Wright attributes this to the high pollen count of the area they visited, triggering seasonal allergies that cascaded into flare-ups of her son’s Inflammatory Bowel Disease—a common autism-trigger caused by the measles virus left in the gut by vaccines. As Ms. Wright wrote, “the immune system and the gastrointestinal system are one.”

Sure enough, back home I saw that Nina’s urine was dark; she’d been on the way to a Urinary Tract Infection during our whole vacation. These are frequent for her because toilet training is difficult–another result of a diagnosis similar to Katie Wright’s son.