NYT: Hoping for Smiles, Mother Gives Autistic Son a Spider-Man Party

The boy stood alone in the dim hallway of the housing project community center. He stared at a row of lockers, at a vending machine, at nothing.

In the next room, children and their parents and grandparents shouted and laughed over dance music booming from somebody’s speaker. The party was up and running.

The boy’s name was Jamel Hunter, and the party, on a Saturday night in East Harlem in November, was for him. He had just turned 8. His family did not notice him leave the party room and slip outside to the hall. They were used to that.

After a while, Jamel came back.

Every available surface of what, an hour earlier, had been an empty community room had been decorated in the colors and likeness of Jamel’s favorite superhero, Spider-Man. There were Spider-Man balloons, cupcakes, a spider made of frosting on the birthday cake, even a homemade pin-the-tail-on-Spider-Man game.

Jamel’s mother, Phyllis Atwood, 46, sat and looked around. A Spider-Man mask dangled around her neck. She was already wiped out. She had put a lot of work into this night, from reserving the room to finding the theme song to the Spider-Man television show to making her famous potato salad. The night was part party and part prayer, for it was a first for Jamel, and she wanted it to be perfect.

Jamel has autism, and slight variations from his routines can be jarring, sending him into screaming fits or silent retreats to his own thoughts. The party was a huge leap. The volume of the music, the rows and rows of trays of barbecue and soft drinks and desserts, the brightly colored balloons — it was as if Ms. Atwood were making up for lost time, throwing him three or four parties at the same time.

He did a wild little dance, and women laughed and clapped, but then he lay down on the floor, watching the other children run.

His older sister, Imani, 9, was born in August, and had an outdoor party every summer. Jamel would disappear from the party.

“He’d run away to a tree, or the dirt, anywhere to be by himself,” Ms. Atwood said.

Or he would sit with crayons and draw. Ms. Atwood had thought of this, too, and she had set up an arts and crafts table in his party room.

Ms. Atwood has Blount’s disease, a condition in which the upper shin bone stops producing bone tissue; she sometimes uses a wheelchair. Her kidneys are failing and she has dialysis three times a week. She had loaded her wheelchair with party supplies before making her way from their apartment to the party.

For years, Jamel would not speak, not even when he started preschool. Shortly before his fifth birthday, he came home and looked at an old poster of vocabulary words on the wall, its illustrations faded, the corners curling.

“Apple,” he said. “Boat.”

“I started crying,” Ms. Atwood said.

As he grew older, play dates became awkward. “Yes,” Ms. Atwood would explain to other parents, “he is playing with Buzz and Woody.” His peers, long past those “Toy Story” characters, seemed to have grown up so fast — too fast. “They’re cursing, talking about smoking weed,” she said. “I hear their conversation. I try to ignore it, but I can’t.”

Ms. Atwood hired a clown, but he was running late. She called someone on her cellphone, shouting to be heard over the music: “Have him dress at the door.”

Jamel’s godmother, Vickie Carter, gave Jamel a hug. “He’s starting to be more friendly,” she said. “He was really quiet. Just say ‘Hi’ to people and go on about his business.”

Ms. Atwood has held several jobs, including as a housekeeper, a babysitter and a beautician, but she has been unable to work recently because of her disabilities. And Imani has attention deficit disorder.

The family lives off Social Security benefits; each of them receives $740 a month. They pay $644 a month in rent for their two-bedroom apartment, and $206 for cable, telephone service and Internet access.

Jamel attends special education classes at a nearby elementary school, and he showed progress in working with computer games that featured cartoon characters. In August, Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New York, one of the seven agencies supported by The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund, used $230 from the fund to buy Jamel an iPad.

The party grew louder. Jamel fidgeted at the art table while younger children chased a boy with a balloon. Then a cheer arose: The clown had arrived.

Jamel’s face broke into a wide smile, and he ran and hugged the clown, who waddled across the room, shouting and joking, and sat at the arts table. He pulled out his own supply of paint — face paint.

Jamel was first. “I want to be Spider-Man!” he shouted. The clown went to work. Jamel does not like wearing masks because of the sensation of the material touching his face. But he stood stoically as the clown painted red and white fields and black webbed lines.

Jamel looked at his image on a guest’s cellphone, with no reaction, then walked over and showed his mother, who praised him.

The party carried on, with guests eating cake and singing “Happy Birthday.” Ms. Atwood left feeling good, she said.

But then guests sent her photos on her phone.

“His face looked kind of sad in all the pictures,” she said. She went back and forth trying to explain. “I don’t think he was sad. I think he was overwhelmed,” she said, but then added, as if to herself, “Not one smile in the pictures.”

She said she asked him if he had a good time.

Jamel replied, putting an end to the matter in his matter-of-fact way: “I was happy at my birthday party.”

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