Starbucks and the Grande Comforts of Familiarity for an Autistic Man
My son and I stroll through the doors of Starbucks looking every inch like a TV commercial for the place. Walker, a tall, handsome, smiling 30-year-old, leads me, his aging boomer father with shaky knees, like a star actor assisting the elderly. We look, I think, like some Madison Avenue-produced, one-minute scenario of father-son bonding. For the first five seconds of the ad, you feel some predictable tag line coming as in the old beer commercial, “Life doesn’t get any better than this.”
Then as we stand in line, Walker, who has severe autism, blows his cover — big time. His hands start shaking rapidly at his sides. He points with odd intensity to something in the glass display case and shouts, “CROISSANT!” Not smooth. Others standing near turn and check him out. Customers at tables spin around to see where the commotion is coming from. When they spot the source, though, they see a happy, gentle, grinning young man who’s having momentary trouble expressing himself. Smiles stretch from the counter to the window.
He loves this place. A commercial might suggest that the cafe is a local hangout for these two, but for us “this place” is actually any one of about nine spots in the greater Chicago metropolitan area. Walker needs to move fast, every day, so we drive far and for hours, and we walk, rapidly, for miles up and down Chicago’s North Side. But he also craves the reassuringly familiar. So driving takes us to a far north suburb — and a Starbucks. Walking means hitting the streets along a familiar route and also hitting the croissants in two or even three Starbucks along our route.
He loves his extended big city, but he also seems to like the way he can always count on stepping into the same Starbucks twice, or three times, or 90 times. Starbucks helps make our mega-city a small town: No matter how far we walk or drive, we still walk into the same familiar place where the barista knows his name.
When he was younger and not so able to control himself, I was never sure how a visit to any store or restaurant would go. Unable to express what he was thinking or what he was fearing, he could suddenly burst into a shouting, pushing, shoving explosion of impatience and fright. Just getting him out the door was a huge issue. But the baristas at Starbucks have always been helpful and nonchalant about his trouble, even when the issue was getting him up off the floor where he inexplicably had planted himself. Through repeated visits over the years, he has come to regard it as his place, and the baristas as his friends.
Of course, there is a huge, very obvious downside to the Starbuckization of America. Like McDonald’s and Taco Bell and Wendy’s, etc. — giant franchises crush local color and produce a more monochrome world. But this seems like a grumpy quibble when I see the smile on Walker’s face as he walks into one of his old familiar places. Severe autism creates a wall that blocks connection and isolates; it creates insecurity and the fear that one will not be able to cope with what life throws at you next.
So I say, in a limited way, bring on the franchise that breaks down a wall, if only for the 10-minute flashes of time that allow a bright charismatic young man to feel at home in the world.
Robert Hughes is the author of “Walker Finds a Way: Running into the Adult World with Autism.” He lives in Lakeview.
Link to Chicago Tribune article