Health & Family

‘Take my son to jail,' I said.

My husband and I were sitting down to dinner when the police called. It was a dispatcher whose voice I recognized from previous incidents involving my 20-year-old son, Andrew, who has autism.

In recent years, this police department has picked him up for shoplifting, taken reports from restaurants where he had dined and dashed, and once even brought him back from the airport after he tried to stow away on a plane.

On this occasion the dispatcher explained that my car, which I had earlier reported stolen, had been found on the side of the highway about 70 miles away in St. Cloud, Minn. – filthy and out of gas but otherwise undamaged. I would need to retrieve it from the impound lot.

I swallowed a sip of Chianti and recited the line I had been rehearsing all afternoon: “I want to press charges.”

“I told you, the car is fine.”

“I want to press charges,” I said again, resolved to see this through.

“Against your son?” she asked, incredulous.

The sergeant came on the line. “I'll pick up the car tomorrow” – my voice was firm, belying my doubt – “but you need to take my son to jail.”

We went over Andrew's stats: 6 feet 3 inches tall, 280 pounds. “He's a tournament chess player,” I told the sergeant. “If someone could play a game with him from time to time, that would be nice.”

Couldn't fit into the real world

Growing up with his younger brother and sister and me in the years after his father left, Andrew was a sweet, dreamy child with language-processing difficulties. It took him a long time to answer simple questions.

After sifting through the superfluous memories in his brain, Andrew would blurt out an answer you could count on being the truth.

Back then I would have said children with autism are incapable of telling lies. They don't, as a rule, participate in games of make-believe. At 10, Andrew hung on the edge of the group when I read fairy tales before bed, disapproving because what happened in the stories wasn't real: talking wolves, a spinning wheel killing someone, finding one's way along a trail of bread crumbs. Andrew dealt in facts.

Yet he couldn't fit into the real world with its nuances. He liked things rigid and predictable. He did his homework on time. When it was his turn to clean up after dinner, he polished until the kitchen sparkled.

By 14, he seemed to be making headway. He became hooked on romantic comedies like “Sleepless in Seattle.” He even suggested that I listen to a radio show, as Meg Ryan's character did, to find a new husband.

But at 17, he grew moody, remote and oddly poetic. He talked about “darkness crowding” him; he liked a particular girl because she walked “with silence.”

By 18, he was oversleeping and bingeing on junk food. He refused to cut his hair and started lying.

One day there was money missing from his brother's birthday stash. I couldn't believe that Andrew had taken it, but no other explanation made sense.

As troubling as his behavior seemed, I saw it as progress … of a sort. It seemed to me he was going through a delayed but normal adolescence, and I welcomed anything “normal.”

His psychiatrist disagreed. She told me that he had mentioned having special powers and that he sometimes heard voices telling him to do bad things. “I'm so sorry,” she concluded. “Andrew is schizophrenic.”

“I don't believe that.” There was a frantic quality to my voice. “He's depressed, maybe. He's being dramatic.”

She looked at me sadly and said it was a very unlucky thing – to have both autism and schizophrenia.

A terrifying time

At home Andrew told me one tall tale after another, and I was charmed; he was finally developing an imaginative life.

Then he came up with an image that rattled me: A little old lady from a music video would, he claimed, sometimes materialize to scold him for his sins.

Frightened, I agreed to an anti-psychotic drug. His behavior grew more bizarre. Now, Don Henley was telling him to defend the greatness of the Eagles.

Soon Andrew had quit studying and begun eating maniacally, sometimes stuffing food into his mouth until he gagged. While on a second medication that the doctor said would be more effective, Andrew slipped into catatonia. Electroconvulsive therapy was required to bring him back. It was a terrifying time.

Then we found a crisis mental health center with locked cabinets and doors. It was a bleak place, but the staff was terrific. One woman worked crossword puzzles with Andrew daily until his vocabulary was restored.

From there, Andrew moved to a less restrictive setting near our house, and his intellectual life soared. He ran Spanish classes for the other residents. Alas, he had also become adept at escaping, stealing and lying baldly when he was caught. Items and cash belonging to his housemates began to disappear.

One night at the group home, Andrew turned to me and said, “I'm not sure I'm autistic anymore.”

“What are you?” I asked.

“I think” – he paused for a long time – “I'm just a thief.”

Five hours later, he stole my car and plotted a route from St. Cloud to Seattle.

What he hadn't factored in was $4-a-gallon gasoline and prepay-only pumps, making it impossible for him to steal; otherwise, he might have made it.

Earlier at the group home, he had named his behavior for what it was, and in doing so he had spoken the truth. He was asking to be an adult, I thought, and it was time for me to honor that, no matter how painful.

The following Monday I attended his arraignment.

“Who is pressing charges?” the judge asked.

I stood and said, “I am.”

“And you are?”

“His mother. Also the victim.”

Andrew stared at me from his table across the room and nodded approvingly. He pulled himself up with pride.

“Can you tell me why you're here, Mr. Bauer?” the judge asked.

“Mr. Bauer,” I thought, strangely pleased. In his deliberate, troubled way, my son had done it: He had found his way to adulthood. And although I didn't know it then, he would find his way through this, too. But he needed to go through it, not back, and not around. Maybe that's what he knew better than any of us.

Andrew gave me a glimmer of a smile before facing the judge and narrating, in clear language, the story of his crime.