This fictional short story is in recognition of World Autism Awareness Day (April 2nd) and Autism Awareness Month (April). May the ones who misunderstand gain a bit of insight; may the ones who love those with autism carry on with their enduring loyalty; and may the ones with autism receive the positive attention and acceptance they deserve.

by Keri Horon

The sun warmed the dashboard and the car’s interior to a pleasantly toasty temperature. Carefully, the woman lifted the green and white coffee cup from the middle console, adjusting it in her grasp so as not to spill it like last time. Maybe she shouldn’t have worn the white hoodie today, knowing she’d be working from her car. Juggling coffee and a laptop in the front seat of a car inevitably led to a messy situation.

With the smudges on her reading glasses wiped clean, she opened the laptop and checked email. Twenty seven messages, but none of them needing attention. A text popped up: another promo with 20% off and free shipping. She swiped it up and off the screen. Leaning her head back for a moment, she thought about the editing she needed to do for her autism article for a website. Her journalism degree served her well with all the research she had been doing. She sipped the coffee. A slamming car door startled her, and she almost spilled decaf on her keyboard.

“Dang it!” she said aloud. She scooped up the laptop, her bag, keys, and sunglasses, and exited the car. Leaning in after everything was gathered, she held the coffee like a fragile egg and moved everything to a metal picnic table. “My desk for the next few hours…” she whispered, and settled in to work.

Glad she wore the hoodie, she raised the laptop screen again. She stared at the article’s rough draft and her copious notes. The sun warmed her back. Where to begin…


The bedroom faced east, and the sun peeked in through pink gingham curtains. The child laid quietly under the covers as her mother gently opened and closed dresser drawers, selecting an outfit for the day’s adventures. Her favorite mug (a souvenir from a trip to Disneyland) sat on her daughter’s night stand with steam rising in circles from the hot brew within.

“How about the park today, Abigail?” The child gave a sleepy nod. “Mommy has some errands first, but afterwards, we’ll stop at your favorite park and play on the slides.” She smoothed Abby’s hair and lifted her mug for a sip.

Photo Credit: Andrew Neel @ Pexels

In the mirror on Abby’s dresser, she caught a reflection of herself and leaned in to adjust her necklace. She wondered if the black turtleneck would be too warm in the afternoon sun, but shrugged and decided to keep it on. She could always roll the sleeves up her arms.

When errands were complete, mother and daughter pulled into the playground’s parking lot. Lot was a loose term, since there were only three spaces. Abby, released from her booster seat, put her tiny blue shoes on the concrete and grabbed her doll. Mom knelt and brushed the front of Abby’s dress with her hand. She restyled the girl’s ponytail, adjusting the mint green bow to perfection. She instructed Abby to carry the doll under her arm and not by the head. The girl bounced merrily into the park.


Photo Credit: Neosiam @ Pexels

The metallic gray alarm clock rang jarringly at 8:12 AM, just as it did every morning. The young man in his neat-as-a-pin bed opened his eyes and looked at the ceiling. “Time to get up. Time to get up.” he said aloud. 

He turned his head to check that it was indeed 8:12, and said, “Eight twelve. My birthday is eight twelve. The time is eight twelve. Time to get up.”

He carefully folded each layer of bedding to the foot of the bed. First, the white comforter. Then the gray blanket. Then the black top sheet. He fluffed the goose down pillow and placed it perfectly in the center of the bed near the headboard. Very slowly, so as not to disturb the placement of any textile, the young man moved both legs in unison to the edge of the bed and put his feet on the carpet at precisely the same moment. 

“Good morning, honey,” said a salt-and-pepper haired woman who was pouring coffee in the sun-drenched kitchen. “How did we sleep last night?”

“It was fine. I say that every day. You ask me that every day. I get up at 8:12 every day.” said Grant, his voice characteristically monotonous.

“I know, honey, but it’s what people say in the morning, especially to people they love, and I love you, Grant,” she walked by him, careful not to inadvertently touch him. She did not want to start the day with a meltdown.

“What would you like to do today, Grant?” she asked, knowing the answer. Ever since Grant aged-out of his school program, he had grown more anxious and more rigid in his routines. 

“I want to drink coffee. Then I want to watch Today: Third Hour on NBC. Then I will eat a Luna bar. I would like lemon blueberry today. Then I will go to the park with my shoes on.” Grant stared at the toaster as he explained the itinerary.

“Right…with shoes on! That’s very important to remember, Grant. I’m proud of you for remembering, honey.” She leaned in to kiss his head, and then remembered and backed away. 


Editing the first paragraph of her article, her coffee now lukewarm, she thought about the hundreds (thousands?) of parents who were in their homes with their very young children wondering why their precious babies were not making eye contact. They’d put on brave faces during the day, telling themselves that their son’s tendency to repeatedly line up toys showed a preference for neatness.  That their daughter was just shy and it would pass. Listening to their doctors who said hang in there and no, it’s nothing to worry about. 

But in the dark hours of night, lying in bed, they told themselves different stories. Their co-worker’s neighbor’s son was just diagnosed with autism; could it be that? Last night’s episode of The Good Doctor showed a scene where Shawn was a child: there was something really familiar about the mannerisms the actor portrayed. 

Writing the article about autism came easy, in some respects. Having researched the topic for over 20 years, she gained much insight. The research wasn’t just an accumulation of facts; having been motivated by purpose and love, it grew into folders upon folders of stories, recipes, book lists, newspaper articles, doctors’ notes, and more.

In other respects, writing an article about autism stirred emotions. It hearkened back to a time when she herself was in those shoes – lying in bed in the night time with frightening thoughts…listening to pediatricians placate her with prosaic statements about her child’s health and development. The day she refused to no longer hang in there was the day the journey started and an intention was born. Other parents needed answers in this situation (not dismissals). They needed support (not platitudes). Acceptance (not rejection). Treatments (not shoulder shrugs). Hope (not pessimism).

She brushed off a fallen leaf from a tree that sailed onto her arm, rolled up her sleeves, and resolved to give as much information about autism as she could in 1200 words.

The sound of squeaking metal caught her attention.


Photo Credit: PNW Production @ Pexels

Grant dragged his toes through the sand every time the swing launched upward. He dutifully donned his Vans before departing the house and giving his mom a thumbs-up. But as soon as he arrived at the park around the corner, he took them off and positioned them at the eighth fence post. It was, in fact, twelve steps from the entrance to the eighth post. 

Unwilling to touch the cold metal links of the swing’s chain with his fingers, Grant wrapped his arms around the chain at the elbows. His long-sleeved gray t-shirt from Kohl’s (the only department store his mother could get him into) protected his sensory system from the bumpy, steely feel of the chain links against his skin.

Somehow, sand on his toes was calming. He loved feeling the grit on his feet and his skin crusted with dry, sandy particles. As he vigorously swung higher and higher, he looked up at the sky and repeated sand on my toes sand on my toes sand on my toes. Occasionally, he would squeal in delight.

When the wind picked up, dry leaves would make their way onto the sandy area beneath the swings and slides. Abruptly, Grant would come to a stop like a fighter jet snagging the tail hook on an aircraft carrier. Lickety split, the leaves were collected and spilled over the fence. Then, swinging could resume.

Photo Credit: miguel-á-padriñán @ Pexels


“Mommy? Can you take my doll while I climb?” Abby handed her mother the doll by its tiny shoes. Her mother said nothing, but quickly turned the doll right side up and let out a little sigh. She remembered how careful she was with her own dolls and how she was told by a babysitter that having dolls taught you how to treat a baby.  

Abigail hopped away to climb the slide, not from the ladder. Her mother took a phone out of a large patent leather bag and began scrolling. She waggled her black ballet flat to a silent beat and hoped she would not come home with a speck of sand in her shoes.

“Mommy, watch! Look at me, Mommy! I’m a frog climbing a tree!”

Her mom, not looking up from the phone, issued a less-than-enthusiastic “uh-huh.”

From the top of the yellow slide, Abby saw a man on the other side of the fence walking in the parking lot and kicking leaves. “Don’t kick leafs!” she hollered. “Leafs are nice!”

“Uh-huh.” muttered her mom.

Photo Credit: Jason Kim @ Pexels


When paragraph six was exchanged with paragraph eight, the flow of the article improved. Certain sections had to be cut to meet the word count. The writer looked up to see a young man on the children’s swing. He was sailing back and forth with gusto. She noticed how he secured himself using his elbows. She saw his apparent bare feet – or maybe they were flesh-colored socks. She heard the metal squeaking and the man squealing every few seconds. 

In her heart, she knew. She gazed around for a friend, a parent, an aide. The young man appeared to be alone. She thought she’d keep an eye open just in case the young man needed help. She hadn’t noticed him come in, but his presence there now was hard to ignore. She smiled, for she knew the squeal of delight that came from finding your just-right place. Swinging helped many people on the autism spectrum regulate themselves. Occupational therapy! How could she forget to include that in the article? It was most certainly something parents of children recently diagnosed with autism needed to know and consider for their child. There were just so.many.things.


From the loft’s second-story window, the salt-and-pepper haired woman kept a quiet watch on Grant. She had taken him to the park bordering their yard ever since he was a toddler. She’d carry him down the block, choosing to not battle over his refusal to wear shoes. She’d always run her feet through the sand ahead of him, just in case something sharp was hidden below the surface. Luckily, all she ever found were sticks.

As Grant grew older, she would put him in a wagon and transport him and his bare feet to the park. Those were the days of fruit juice and cereal in the mornings, followed by Barney & Friends and late arrivals to school. The teachers were always sympathetic to Grant’s late arrivals, which ended when Mom taught him to tell time. And now, Grant’s life was ruled by routines that started and ended according to what time of day it was.

Photo Credit: Foodie Factor @ Pexels

For several years, Grant’s behavioral aide would take him to the park after school, and they had practiced wearing shoes. One day, the aide told Grant’s mom that Grant wanted to go to the park by himself. They made a deal: wear your shoes and you can go to the park and back by yourself. Grant said, “Deal Mom. I wear shoes.”

She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear as she noticed from her window a woman with a laptop at a picnic table in the park and a white mini-van pulling up to the parking area. She took a step closer to the window. She loved watching Grant’s hair fluff up with every downward motion of the swing.


Photo Credit: Chris F. @ Pexels

The doll fell off the bench when Abby’s mom crossed her other leg. She was always uncomfortable on that bench and had envisioned joining whatever committee oversaw playground maintenance in their neighborhood just so she could advocate for more pleasant benches. She never located such a committee.

Abby was chattering away and occasionally letting out a loud “Ribbitt! Ribbitt!” as she hopped around. Just as the doll was retrieved from the ground and brushed off, a young man rounded the corner. The sight of large feet caught her eyes, and without sitting back up, Abby’s mom’s eyes followed the feet as they plodded along the fence line. 

She sat up slowly and turned her body to watch this man walk by. He was moving his fingers as if playing an invisible piano. Her heart beat more rapidly. The little hairs on her forearms, now exposed when she rolled up her turtle-neck sleeves, vibrated with some kind of inner warning. She let go of the doll and stood up.

“Abigail! Abigail! Come down from there!” 

“Why, Mommy? I am a frog on my tree right now!”

“Because Mommy said so, Abigail. Come down to the ground.”

Abigail muttered “Oh boy,” and climbed down the ladder, backwards. She watched the man several yards away get off the swing and pick up dry leaves. To herself she said, “Nice man. Nice leafs.”

Photo Credit: Marta Wave @ Pexels


Grant resumed swinging, and he began kicking his legs to gain height and speed. He had no idea his mom was watching him from the loft, and his mom had zero intention of revealing her patrol.

Through the screen, she could just about hear the little girl’s requests for her mom’s attention. She could certainly make out the “Mommy! Mommy!” and she could also see the lowered head which didn’t look up in caring response. Her heart sunk a little – how many years had it been that she and Grant visited that playground where she’d have done anything to hear Grant say, “Mommy, watch me!” 

She knew, even early on, that despite a lack of verbal requests from her precious son for her time and attention, he did want people to pay attention to him. Social challenges in autism were all too often interpreted by some people as a preference to be left alone. And all too often, Grant’s mom saw people in their world overlook her son as if he wasn’t there.


Not much editing of the article was happening when it was observed that the young man’s presence made the woman in the turtle neck shift her eyes from her phone. The writer lowered the laptop screen and sat upon the table top instead of the bench. Just to keep an eye. She had no idea where Grant lived, and thus, no idea his mom was the twelve-o-clock patrol to her six-o-clock watch. Grant was the dial smack in the middle.


“Mommy, are you going to play leapfrog with me?”

“No Abigail, Mommy is just going to stand here with you.”

“But why, Mommy? Why are you standing here with me and not playing?”

“Abigail, just do what Mommy says.”

Abigail began kicking some sand onto the bottom of the slide.

“Don’t get sand in your shoes, Abby, please.”


“Don’t get sand in shoes! Don’t get sand in shoes!” 

Grant repeated part of what he heard as he kept looking skyward. He wiggled his toes and raked them through the beige sand with each kick up. He smiled gleefully and felt butterflies in his belly, just like when his mom let him ride the roller coaster at the amusement park. 

Come Fourth of July, Grant would wake up at 8:12 AM and request coffee, Today: Third Hour, Luna bar, and Big Roller Coaster at Six Flags. “You will wear shoes?” she’d say. “Deal Mom. I wear shoes.” he’d say. And she’d drive him to Six Flags to spend the day riding the coaster.


Grant turned his head to look at the little girl and her mom. He noticed that the doll was on the bench, alone, and sure as can be, he had noticed the doll come in with Abigail, and the doll sitting on the bench with the mom. But now the doll was alone. Forgotten.

“Not alone! Noooo! With girl!”

He dug his toes fighter-jet style into the sand.


Mom pressed her fingertips on the screen of the loft’s window.


The writer stood up.


Grant, a bit dizzy from the sudden stop, and a bit winded from repeating words while swinging, stumbled forward. He tried to right himself but propulsion and gravity were against him. He tumbled on his left side, lower legs in the air, colliding with the rubber seat of the swing as it jerked back. The heavy rubber caught him in the shin, and he let out a wailing yelp.

His hands involuntarily went out before him and plunged into the sand. Unlike sand on his feet, sand on his hands was not a comfort. He yelped again. He sat up and grabbed his shin bone. His shirt had scraped along the ground and collected bits of sand, sticks, and dried leaves. He was most upset and began to weep.


Just then, a fire truck unleashed its ear-piercing siren as it raced down the adjacent street. “Look Mommy! A fire cruck! Are they going to save someone?”

“I don’t know, Abby. Probably, yes.” She saw the man stumbling to get up.

Grant raised his hands to his ears so rapidly that sand was flicked into his already-wet eyes. He howled and stood up to run. His feet took him in the direction of the bench. 

“Abigail – run! Run to Mommy’s car right now! Go!” The woman grabbed her purse and looked at Grant with horror on her face. Grant lifted his gray shirt to wipe the sand from his eyes and was trying to say something through the fabric and the tears, but it came out like a moan.

“What’s the matter with you?” she yelled. “Just get back! Get back or I’ll scream!”


Grant’s mom flew down the stairs, almost missing the last step and grabbing the banister just in time. She stopped, caught her breath, and pulled the house key from the hook by the back door. 

The writer scuttled across the grassy area, leaving the laptop, bag, and keys on the picnic table. She covered her own ears to muffle the screech of the truck. A gust of wind knocked over the leftover coffee, which seeped onto the canvas bag and left a stain resembling a puzzle piece.

“Get back…get back! Look mister, you better get back!”

“Ohh, Grant…Grant! I’m coming Grant! Oh God, please help him.”

“Don’t yell! Please stay calm! Don’t yell at him! He’s not trying to hurt you!”


Photo Credit: Bjørn Nielsen @ Pexels

The fire truck rounded the corner of the park with its siren blaring. Everyone was yelling; the scene resembled a silent movie where mouths moved but no audio was heard.

The woman ran toward her van as fast as her ballet flats could take her. Abigail had not obeyed her mother, and was standing silently on a cement lily pad. The writer paused where the grass met the sand and called out, “Do you need help, young man? I can help you.”

The salt-and-pepper haired woman, beads of sweat on her forehead, didn’t know who to talk to first. She chose Grant.

“Grant, hi. It’s Mom,” she said in the most calm and composed way she could, despite her breathlessness. “Just thought I’d check on you, honey, and bring a snack in case you’re hungry. Are you hungry?” She knelt by Grant and blew gently on his face to remove more sand. She took a Luna bar from her pocket and placed it in his palm.

With Grant covered, the writer moved toward the young mother. She was standing by her van, panting and smoothing her hair. “Are you alright?”

“Yes, yes. I think so. That was so scary! Did you see all that? He was about to…”

“About to do a very thoughtful thing for your daughter.”

Her face squinched. “What? You saw that, didn’t you? He was coming toward her, toward me -“

She then turned her attention to her daughter, noting that Abigail was not by the van. “What did Mommy tell you, Abby?”

Abigail turned to her mom. “Mommy, he’s a nice man. He was picking up the leafs and saving them from the sand. Look, he made a big pile of leafs over the fence.” She pointed with her pinkie finger to Grant’s large collection of leaves at post eight. 

Grant’s mom looked over and smiled. Always tidying up she thought. Even the playground.

Photo Credit: Welma Alves Santos @ Pexels

Suddenly, Grant turned, brushed off his shirt, wiped his eyes, and walked to the bench. He delicately lifted the doll and walked over to Abby on the lily pad. 

“Here’s doll. Don’t forget doll. Don’t get sand in doll shoes.” He offered the doll to Abby with both hands outstretched, and, as she accepted it, he wiped the doll’s shoes clean of sand with the hem of his gray shirt.

The writer looked at Grant’s mom whose eyes filled with tears. Abby’s mother covered her mouth and looked at the pavement. Grant turned toward his mom, ripped open the Luna bar, and with a mouthful of blueberry lemon said, “Mom, I wore my shoes to the park. They are over there. Want to watch me swing so high?”

Grant’s mom let the tears roll down her cheeks. “Sure, honey, I’d love to watch you. You soar so very, very high.” 

The writer watched the pair walk to the swings and smiled. Grant’s mom’s feet were bare.

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