I’ve been Ubering for a while now and I’m use to having all walks of life in my car. But I was completely unprepared for today’s rider. It’s not unusual for people to call an Uber for others. I’ve had guys sparing their date the walk of shame the next morning. I’ve had wives and girlfriends outside giving kisses goodbye as I pick up their spouses and boyfriends. I’ve had kids calling for their non-tech savvy parents and even parents calling an Uber for their kids, which is what I had today.
I got “pinged” and made my way to an IHOP for my pick up. As I pulled up, I was waved over by a mother and her adult son with luggage. So I parked and opened my trunk, luggage usually means I’m headed to LAX. That wasn’t the case this time, just a kid visiting his mom for the weekend and brought home some laundry to wash. I had a bit of a laugh, as I saw her lean in for a hug and a kiss goodbye and he pulled away as most embarrassed kids do with parental PDA.
He got in and promptly put on his seatbelt. I confirmed where we were headed and he was very curt in answering. Being no stranger to riders that just prefer the ride with no conversation, I followed the GPS to his location. Before we even pulled out of the park lot, his cell phone was out and his music was on. I was about to ask if he wanted the audio cord to stream his music through the car, but I noticed he started to slowly rock. I looked through the rearview mirror and sure enough, he had his cell phone, music blaring, up to his ear, his eyes closed and he was rocking back and forth, not uncommon for those with Autism to do as a means of soothing themselves. And then it hit me. He’s autistic. He’s soothing. He’s in an environment where he is not comfortable. Change isn’t easy and he was in a strange car, with a stranger. I understood his anxiety all too well.
Being a mother of an autistic daughter myself, I recognized the signs. I also knew that once they withdraw into themselves, there’s no pulling them out. As a mother, my heart went out to him. My heart went out to his mother. And my anxiety level went up. I’ve only ever dealt with my daughter’s autism and being on the high functioning side of the spectrum, I realized just how unequipped I was to address him if I needed to.
He continued to slowly rock, but he opened his eyes to see where we were. He apparently knew the way to get to where we were going and became more and more relaxed because it didn’t take long for him to turn off the music and stop rocking. I looked at the GPS and we still had a little less than an hour to go. Making my way through L.A. streets during rush hour morning traffic didn’t help, but we eventually made it to the freeway. Once on the freeway, even though traffic was still thick, he was more and more calm. Most of the ride was uneventful and I started to relax myself. Occasionally I’d feel him looking at me, or I’d check the mirror and catch of glimpse of him looking away. Knowing eye-contact is a tough thing for those with autism, I got it, I made sure not to look at him directly, but I was still trying to figure out what it was he was looking at. Then it occurred to me, he was watching my facial expressions. If I furrowed my eyebrows in frustration with the traffic, he’d start to rock again, so I was conscious of keeping a smile on my face to keep him relaxed.
The closer we got to his school, the more aware he was of our route. About a block away from school, he started to mumble repetitively turn by turn. I asked him which building was his and he answered but again, was very short. I pulled over, hopped out and opened the trunk. He quickly got his stuff out, didn’t make eye contact and carefully crossed the street. I mumbled something to the effect of “have a nice day” and barely made it back into the car, turned off my Uber app and pulled out a kleenex before the tears started.
I felt such heartbreak for his mom that so tenderly hugged and kissed him goodbye and trusted him into my care. My heart felt for him as he crossed the street and made his way home alone. I felt relief that my daughter is high functioning and not as severe as this boy was, quickly followed by such guilt, for the same reason. Autism is not easy. Not for the person that has it. Not for the family that lives with it. I cried all the way back to the freeway and about halfway home. And then hope kicked in. The hope that this boy with Autism gave me. That he had the strength to Uber all the way home alone and self-soothe. Hope from this mom that I can let go at some point and know that I’ve given my daughter all the help I possibly can to be that independent. Hope that she’ll be able to go to college someday too. Hope that her future is as bright as anyone else’s is.
And after going through that roller coaster of emotion on this Uber ride and learning such a great life lesson, I went home, washed my tears away, cleaned myself up, and headed out the pick up the next Uber life lesson waiting for me.