Susan Senator is author of “Autism Adulthood: Strategies and Insights for a Fulfilling Life.”
A while back, someone at a conference told me that intellectually disabled people with guardians could not vote. I believed it and stuffed away thoughts about taking my severely autistic son, Nat, to get registered. It was one more stinging “no” in his life. I should be used to it by now, but I’m not.
Recently, however, I noticed the Twitter hashtag #CripTheVote, which is a rallying call to political candidates to take note of this huge constituency. As a disability rights advocate, I retweeted dutifully. The shadow of sadness for Nat never quite cleared, though, and one day I found myself angry about it: Why couldn’t Nat vote? Who was to say that he couldn’t make such decisions for himself?
But the objections, the whispers, the doubt in people’s eyes. I imagined a Town Hall bureaucrat skeptically appraising Nat with lidded lizard eyes. Or that other kind, the overly helpful person who treats Nat like a child. I imagined everyone thinking: He can’t possibly understand the issues. He’ll need assistance in the booth. The voting volunteers will hassle him. You’re really doing this so you can vote twice.
So I asked other autism parents on Facebook what they did. Most had, in fact, registered their sons and daughters to vote. It was definitely legal in my state, Massachusetts, but no one seemed to feel completely comfortable with it. One mom LOL’d about how her son just votes the way she does. Another scoffed at “Ouija board voting.” Another talked about how she just did not feel right about the whole thing since she couldn’t tell whether her daughter was really interested. She would not force voting on her.
Damn them all, I thought, now determined to make this happen. But I did wonder how much Nat knew about the presidency. I tested him the first chance I had, when we were in the car together. The quiet of our drives always helps him find his words, which so often seem to float tantalizingly out of reach. I blurted out: “Nat, who is our president?” And right away he answered, “Barack Obama.” A crazy happiness leaped inside me, that uncontrollable, giddy hope I get when Nat surprises me. Hey, this really is possible, I thought. And I could feel my angry advocate muscles start to flex. He was going to vote, and no one was going to get in our way.
But first I had to get him registered. I was almost shaking as I parked the car. Town Hall was just around the block, a building so ugly my husband says it looks as though they took the building and left the box.
Nat strode right in, way ahead of me, either unaware or unconcerned about what he’d encounter there. We waited only a moment or two before the worker behind the glass looked our way. A few minutes later, we were seated at a small table poring over the white form. I did my best to reframe the questions for Nat so he could understand them. They were simple, for the most part: address, birth date.
The question of party stumped me. I had not yet figured out how I would teach him about the different sides. I’d probably create a simple booklet for him, picking a few issues that would affect him, such as health care and anything disability-related. I figured I’d write something like “the Democrats want everyone to have a good doctor like Dr. Reuter (Nat’s pediatrician).” I’d get my Republican friend Andrew to write the other side. (He suggested: “Republicans believe that the each person is the BEST person to say where and how all of the money they make is spent.”) But we had time for that. In the end, I said, “Nat, we will take more time to figure out who you want for president, so right now we can say ‘Unenrolled.’ ”
Then he signed at the bottom, in his sticklike print, and just like that, he became a voting citizen. I wanted to take a picture of him in Town Hall for the Facebook autism moms, but in my nervousness I’d left my phone in the car.
We walked back to the car through a brown, winter-weary garden lined with little American flags. I was surprised by my calm. Usually Nat’s achievements feel like such a big deal, another sparkly win for the forces of good.
Yet when I think about it, I’m kind of happy with how unremarkable the whole 10 minutes were and how friendly everyone was. Because maybe that’s how it should be, that we can take this incredibly important act for granted. Just another day at Town Hall. Except now a guy like Nat, so outwardly quiet, but with so much going on inside, can be heard, just like everyone else.