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Schmoozing on FaceTime with My Autistic Son

By Amy Lennard Goehner


Amy Lennard Goehner with her son, Nate

I had just finished writing a story for a children’s magazine on the NCAA basketball tournament known as March Madness when the actual March Madness took hold. I rewrote my story using the now ubiquitous catchphrases “contain the spread,” “shelter in place” and of course, the dreaded “cancelled.”

Three days before filing my story, my 26-year-old son Nate was scheduled to come home for the weekend, as he does every other month. He has autism and lives on a seed-to-table farm which is part of a school-residence in the Catskills. It is a place that is the stuff special needs parents dream of. Nate’s March trip was cancelled.

So, instead, Nate learned how to FaceTime, and those calls now replace our regular phone calls. They’ve also increased from 15 minutes to say, three hours. And from three times a week to daily. I am blessed that Nate is verbal, unlike many other individuals with autism, so I can hear him tell me he’s happy. I can’t complain because I have it a lot easier than parents who work at home and have young kids, but may I please kvetch just a little? I work from home too, and while I can do some things while FaceTiming, working is not one of them.

Yesterday Nate called to FaceTime. And we did. For three hours. Our conversation went something like this:

Me: Hi Natey, what’s up?

Nate: I fed the donkeys and sheeps and goats and gathered eggs this morning and worked in the herb garden and ran on the treadmill. I can’t believe May is flying by! [A phrase he heard from a staff member a year ago and now repeats nearly every time I speak with him.]

Me: “Yup” I said, while thinking “Flying by about as fast as a root canal.”

After our conversation (pretty much the same conversation every day), we will sing together. Before Nate could talk, I sang to him—Gershwin, Cole Porter, the songs from the Great American Songbook. And one day he began to sing those songs, verbatim. He has a photographic memory and had been storing them all up. But he adds a twist to every song. He changes lyrics to include his favorite name “Andrea.” So listening to Nate sing along to Elvis Presley goes “But I can’t help falling in love with . . . Andrea.”

On FaceTime we always sing “Baby Face, “My Dear,” (his name for “Our Love is Here to Stay” which contains the line, “But oh my dear”), and “Cheek to Cheek.” Or I point the phone to the digital photos on my desktop, even though I’ve sent him most of them. There must be 400 photos, so that’s good for an hour or so. Or he accompanies me on my walk around the apartment, which replaced my walk in Central Park when it started getting too crowded.

He will always mention the name of every relative and friend he’s ever known, where they live, and arcane bits of data no one without a photographic memory could recall. And then sometimes he will say something for the first time. Like when he asked about an elderly friend of mine whom I told him had died. I asked Nate, “do you know where people go when they die?” Nate’s response? “Florida.”

Gotta run. The phone is ringing with the words “FaceTime” flashing across the screen. I need my daily reminder of how May is just flying by!

I’m a third-generation Brooklynite (when Brooklyn was a place to come from, not go to) but grew up in Newton, Mass. I spent most of my career at Time Inc. as deputy chief of reporters at Sports Illustrated, senior editor at Sports Illustrated Kids, and senior arts reporter at Time. I wrote a lot about autism for Time, as my oldest son has autism. I currently freelance for AARP and the wonderful new kids’ magazine, The Week Junior. I’m in my element ghostwriting online dating profiles or shooting pool and drinking a vodka martini — while listening to Ella, Dinah or Sarah.

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