When my son Finn wants to go to the pool he will point at a swimsuit. It doesn’t have to be his swimsuit. It could be mine, or his sister’s, or even a just beach towel left by the door. Without the benefit of language typical of boys his age — 14 going on 15 — Finn still makes his wants known. And he wants to go swimming.
It’s summer in the city and one of the hottest I can remember. Temperatures over the last month have broken records across the country and around the world. Swimming in cold water on a hot day is a delight whether or not you have autism and mental delays like Finn, and whether or not you understand climate change, which he doesn’t.
Finn is fluent in sensations. He understands the feel of the water, the pleasure of kicking, of being splashed, of floating weightless and free. This is a language we share.
What Finn and I don’t share is what it means to feel envy. And summer is typically my season for it. Most Julys and Augusts my social media feeds fill with everyone else’s vacation photos. There was a break in the action these last two years, but now with travel back to pre-pandemic levels, the curated slideshows have returned. And it’s hard not to notice who has the time and means to travel overseas, and who does not. Who has the family lake house in New Hampshire, or the beach house on the North Shore.
I can’t begrudge anyone these escapes and reunions. We don’t know when nor how a new variant (or a new disease) might ground us all again. So, live it up, I say.
In reality, I can’t take all those enviable trips abroad with my mentally delayed son anyway. My family does go to the Cape for a week every summer, but never with him. We haven’t traveled together as a family in years. Because of safety issues — his difficulty waiting, his ability to become suddenly aggressive when frustrated — he hasn’t traveled on a plane since he was three years old. Overnights are also out of the question, at least since he’s become used to the highly regulated, well-staffed environment of his full-time residential home where he moved five years ago.
I feel a deep longing for that kind of summer. The city pool makes that possible.
Yet I want him to enjoy the particular pleasures of summer. And I want to enjoy at least some of these pleasures with him. I feel a deep longing for that kind of summer. The city pool makes that possible.
The bar for entry is low. Admission costs between $2 and $3 a person, less than a popsicle from the ice cream truck. And it’s free after 4 p.m. on weekends, so even if Finn has a bad episode we can leave without great sacrifice. There’s not much in the way of amenities. You have to bring your own towel and chairs. You’re only allowed to pack water, no snacks. But unlike many of the gorgeous vacation spots I stare at online, this city pool in Somerville feels like a truly inclusive space.
After entering through the women’s room, Finn and I walk to the back fence where we set up our bags, towels and flip flops. On the way, amidst the splashing and yells of Marco/Polo, I hear bits of Portuguese, Korean and Spanish. I also note gender nonconforming couples, mixed race families. I see women in headscarves sitting in the shade.
As a white person I’m not in the minority here, but the pool is far more racially integrated than the other places I typically find myself. In this space more than any other, I feel at ease with Finn — like I don’t have to explain him or apologize for his atypical behavior. I used to feel anxious when we were together in public. His tendency to bolt, to suddenly scream or “vocalize” would always draw stares. But at the pool, everyone who sees us smiles, and I relax a little more.
It’s hard not to love humanity on days like these. Everywhere I look is another vignette. A tiny toddler wearing water wings jumps from the pool’s edge into his dad’s outstretched arms. A little girl in a pointed red swim cap holds her nose and takes a running leap into the water. Her brother follows soon behind. A tattooed and pierced couple embrace in the pool. They only have eyes for each other.
The loud din of the pool drowns out his occasional outbursts. This is him. This is one face with autism, with disability.
I try to help my 14-year-old boy float, encourage him to kick. Nearby, a man helps his small daughter learn to swim. The difference in their size does not embarrass me. Nor do Finn’s little yips, or the way he whips his head from side to side — a form of stimming. The loud din of the pool drowns out his occasional outbursts. This is him. This is one face with autism, with disability.
If I keep Finn at home, or to spaces reserved only for people like him, it’s a loss for Finn and the community. The more people see kids like him, the more they’ll understand that these kids exist, the more their behavior will become familiar, less scary, less strange. I owe it to Finn to give him this day at the pool. And I owe it to kids like Finn to help normalize the neurodivergent.
Something profound happens here at the pool, with all this vivid life on display. It’s a richness that makes space for all sorts of difference, including Finn’s. There’s nothing to hide here. Nothing to stare at either. He’s just a boy enjoying himself in the water like everyone else on a hot summer day.
This segment aired on August 19, 2022.