At the pool, my boy can enjoy the summer like everyone else

When my son Finn wants to go to the swimming pool, he will show a bathing suit. It’s not necessarily her bathing suit. It could be mine, or her sister’s, or even just a beach towel left by the door. Without the benefit of language typical of boys his age – 14 out of 15 – Finn still makes his wishes known. And he wants to go swimming.

The author’s son, Finn, enjoys the water at Dilboy Pool in Somerville, Mass. (Courtesy of Alysia Abbott)

It’s summer in town and one of the hottest I can remember. Temperatures last month broke 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 retardation like Finn, and whether or not you understand climate change, which he doesn’t.

Finn is fluent in the sensations. It includes the feeling of water, the pleasure of kicking, of being splashed, of floating weightless and free. It is a language that we share.

What Finn and I don’t share is what it means to feel envy. And summer is usually my season for that. Most of July and August, my social media feeds fill up with vacation photos from everyone. There’s been a hiatus in the action for the past two years, but now with the return to pre-pandemic levels, curated slideshows have returned. And it’s hard not to notice who has the time and the means to travel abroad, and who doesn’t. Who has the family lake house in New Hampshire or the beach house on the North Shore.

I can’t blame anyone for these escapes and reunions. We don’t know when or how a new variant (or a new disease) could wipe us out again. So live it, I say.

In reality, I can’t take all those enviable trips abroad with my mentally retarded son anyway. My family goes to Cape Town for a week every summer, but never with him. We haven’t traveled together as a family in years. For safety reasons – his difficulty in waiting, his ability to suddenly become aggressive when frustrated – he hasn’t flown since he was three years old. Overnight stays are also out of the question, at least since he got used to the highly regulated and well-staffed environment of his full-time residence where he moved five years ago.

I feel a deep desire for this kind of summer. The municipal swimming pool makes this possible.

Yet I want him to savor the particular pleasures of summer. And I want to enjoy at least some of those pleasures with him. I feel a deep desire for this kind of summer. The municipal swimming pool makes this possible.

The entry bar is low. Admission costs between $2 and $3 per 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 much sacrifice. There aren’t many amenities. You must bring your towel and your chairs. You are only allowed to take water, no snacks. But unlike many of the gorgeous vacation spots I look online, this Somerville town pool feels like a truly inclusive space.

The author's son, Finn, enjoys a Chipwich (his favorite ice cream truck treat) at Dilboy Pool in Somerville, Mass.  (Courtesy of Alysia Abbott)
The author’s son, Finn, enjoys a Chipwich (his favorite ice cream truck treat) at Dilboy Pool in Somerville, Mass. (Courtesy of Alysia Abbott)

After entering the women’s restroom, Finn and I walk to the back fence where we set up our bags, towels, and flip flops. Along the way, amid the splashes and cries of Marco/Polo, I hear snatches of Portuguese, Korean and Spanish. I also note gender non-conforming 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 much more racially integrated than other places I’m usually at. In this space more than any other, I feel comfortable with Finn – as if I don’t have to explain or apologize to him for his atypical behavior. I used to feel anxious when we were together in public. His tendency to run away, scream, or suddenly “vocalize” was always eye-catching. But at the pool, everyone who sees us smiles, and I relax a little more.

It’s hard not to love humanity these days. Everywhere I look is another vignette. A toddler wearing water wings jumps from the edge of the pool into his father’s outstretched arms. A little girl in a pointy red bathing cap holds her nose and runs into the water. His brother follows him soon after. A tattooed and pierced couple kiss in the swimming pool. They only have eyes for each other.

The great din of the swimming pool covers its occasional outbursts. It’s him. It is a face with autism, with disability.

I try to help my 14 year old boy float, I encourage him to kick. Nearby, a man is helping his little girl learn to swim. The size difference doesn’t bother me. Neither Finn’s little yelps, nor the way he shakes his head from side to side – a form of stimming. The great din of the swimming pool covers its occasional outbursts. This is he. It is a face with autism, with disability.

If I keep Finn at home, or in spaces reserved only for people like him, it’s a loss for Finn and the community. The more people see children like him, the more they will understand that these children exist, the more their behavior will become familiar, less frightening, less strange. I owe it to Finn to give her that day at the pool. And I owe it to kids like Finn to help normalize neurodivergent.

Something profound is going on here at the pool, with all this living life on display. It’s a richness that makes room for all sorts of differences, including Finn’s. There is nothing to hide here. Nothing to watch either. He’s just a boy having fun in the water like everyone else on a hot summer day.

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About Richard Chandler

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