Tuesday, May 27, 2008

An Adult with Autism The Story of Jamie Part 3

One Friday in August, Jamie took a rare day off from Pete's Produce—he went to a friend's birthday party. The following Monday, Alice took him, as always, to the produce store to pick up his paycheck.

The check amount was smaller than normal because of the day off.

Mama, my paycheck's wrong, Jamie said.

No, baby, you took Friday off. Remember?

No, Mama. This isn't right. Why is my paycheck wrong?

As they drove north toward Easter Seals, Jamie's frustration built. Alice tensed up. She knew what was coming.

Jamie hurled a roll of mints against the windshield, sending them pinging off the windows. He lifted one of his legs up and brought his foot down with a violent thump on the dashboard, his screeching drowning out the soft soul music on the radio. He smacked himself violently in the face and chest.

Though she had been through it many times before, Alice was terrified. She didn't want to pull over. She wanted to get him to the school as fast as possible, and she called ahead to tell counselors there what was happening.

When she pulled into the parking lot, two of the teachers, who had known Jamie since he was a kid, were waiting. He was still bellowing as they led him into the school.

For half an hour he paced the second-floor halls, not speaking to anyone. Finally, Melanie Gomez sat him down, talked gently about what had happened, then firmly told him his behavior was unacceptable.

If he behaved like that, he couldn't work. If he behaved like that, he wouldn't go to China.

For weeks, Melanie and other teachers and counselors at the school tried to prepare Jamie psychologically for his trip.

Melanie, who was Jamie's boss in the adult vocational center, made up a calendar outlining precise details of the journey—where he would be each day, what time his flights would take off and land, how many hours he would need to set his watch ahead. She knew a schedule and an understanding of what was to come was the best going-away gift she could give him.

Though Rob wasn't chosen as a World Games coach, he was going as a spectator. He had his bags packed days before leaving. He wondered aloud what the experience would be like, and played out different scenarios in his head, all involving Jamie winning the gold.

"He deserves this," Rob said. "He's worked hard, and this is going to be his moment. I just know it."

On Sept. 25, Jamie said goodbye to Alice and Rob, joining the team at a hotel near O'Hare International Airport. The next morning, he boarded a commercial flight clad in a navy blue Team USA T-shirt and sweat pants. He and 10 other Illinois athletes were bound for Los Angeles, where they would meet up with athletes from across the country, then board a chartered flight to Shanghai.

The Special Olympics staff and coaches understood what a test this was for Jamie. They kept a close eye on him on the flight to California, answering his rapid-fire questions and doing their best to keep him distracted. On the second leg of the journey to China he was either in his seat, transfixed by an in-flight movie, or doing fast-paced laps around the cabin.

In a sure sign he was nervous, Jamie asked every person he saw: So everything's OK with you, then?

He asked some of the athletes the same question half a dozen times. They began complaining to Mitch, but he told them to let it go. That was just Jamie being Jamie. Besides, the movie player on the plane had broken, and all Jamie had left to do was walk around. There would be plenty more questions to come.

As the flight touched down at Pudong International Airport in Shanghai, Mitch exhaled, relieved. Jamie had made it this far, more than 14 hours in the air. Mitch figured that was half the battle.

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