Iowa Alumni Magazine | April 2005 | Features

Meet Bob Shaffer

By Carol Wilcox

Bob is 17 years old, a sophomore at City High in Iowa City, the only child of loving parents, as active as many kids his age, and he’s trapped. Trapped by a brain that works differently from yours and mine.

On the day that he was to come to my office to talk, I’d planned to clean out the clutter that had accumulated on my desk. Papers were piled on every surface. Having read about autism, I expected that his visit—a change from routine—would be disconcerting for Bob; sitting in a messy room would probably just add to his stress.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get the job done before Bob and his mother, Nancy Shaffer, a development associate at the University of Iowa Foundation, arrived at my door. Nancy introduced us, reminded Bob that I wanted to talk to him for a while, got him settled in a chair, asked if he was OK, and said that she would be in her third-floor office if either of us needed anything. “Remember to use your quiet, inside voice,” Nancy said to Bob as she left.

I pulled a chair around my desk so I could interrupt some of the mess that might separate us and addressed the state of my environment head-on. “My office has a lot of stuff in it, doesn’t it?” I said. “Too much paper.”

“Yeah, there’s a lot of junk in here,” Bob said. “A lot of junk. A lot of junk.”

“Does it bother you?”

No. A lot of junk.”

“Good, I’m afraid it bothers me, but not enough to make clearing the clutter my top priority. I’m so glad you were willing to visit me today. I want to talk to you about autism. Is that OK with you?”

And so our conversation began, and Bob and I began to negotiate that odd little dance that ensues when strangers meet. Two steps forward, one step back. Pause. Dip. Approach once again. Break eye contact to give the other person some space. Decide if you want to continue the encounter or move on.

“Tell me about school,” I said. “What’s your favorite subject?”

A pause.

“I don’t know.”

“Do you like math?”

Pause. “I don’t know."

“What about English? Do you like to read?”

“I don’t know.”

“I understand you work with the boys’ basketball team at City High. Can you tell me about that?”

The City High Little Hawks

“Yes, Carol. Um, Carol, have you heard of the Little Hawks? That’s what we sometimes call our team. The City High Little Hawks. We call them the Little Hawks. Little Hawks.

His voice had risen in volume during this long—for Bob—speech.

“Do you like being the team manager?”

“Yes. I get all dressed up now that I’m a manager. I sit, oh, sometimes, on the second row of the bleachers.”

“Do you have friends on the team? Do the other guys include you in things?”

“I don’t know.” Pause. “You know, Carol, there are two things I want. I want to take drivers’ education. I want to drive.”

“Do you think you’ll be able to get into the class?”

“I don’t know. We need to work it out. There are things we need to work out. I want to drive.”

“That would give you greater freedom, wouldn’t it?”

“Yes, I want to drive. And. And the other thing I want is to get married and have children. Until the day I die, that’s what I want. I want to have children.”

“Oh, children are wonderful, aren’t they? See the picture of my grandson. Isn’t he cute?”

“I don’t know.” Bob appeared genuinely bewildered. “I don’t know if I want children that look like that.”

“What do you want your children to look like?”

“I don’t know. Children.

“Have you picked out a girl you’d like to marry?”

“Well, yes.” Pause. “But I think we should have a date first.”

“Have you gone on a date? Have you asked her out?”

“No.” An extended pause. “She has a boyfriend now.”

“Oh.”

Pause. “But it might not last.”

“That’s right. Things change, don’t they? Bob, what is the most important thing you would teach your children? Have you thought about that?”

“Yes. I would tell them that Christmas is not just for presents. Christmas is Jesus’s birthday. Jesus’s birthday.

“Is that important to you—that people understand that?”

“Jesus’s birthday. Yes. Jesus’s birthday.”

We talked for almost two hours. I learned that Bob’s father works at the university’s power plant, that it’s dangerous there at the plant. I learned that Bob’s grandfather was a fireman, that he was a brave man. That Bob’s mother is planning to retire in ten years. That his parents go to an athletic club for body pump classes. We talked about Bob’s dog, Harvey.

“I understand you have a dog you picked out at the animal shelter.”

“Yes, Harvey, Harvey’s my dog.”

“Is Harvey your friend, too?”

Bob looked puzzled.

“Do you share things with Harvey, tell him things? Is he a kind of friend?”

“No. He’s my pet. My pet.”

Then Bob giggled. “What’s making you laugh?” I asked. “Is Harvey a funny dog?”

“No, some dogs are funny, but Harvey’s not funny. I had an old dog who was very funny. She made me laugh.”

“What did she do to make you laugh?”

“She made a funny noise. Uuuuu-grrrnt-grrrnt. Uuuuu-grrrnt-grrrnt. Yes, she was a funny dog.”

“Did she have a name?”

“Abby. Abby was her name.”

He chuckled some more, remembering the golden retriever who had died when he was only five.

Bob told me he lived on the southeast side of Iowa City, near the country, where farmsteads and fields stretch to the horizon beyond the housing developments.

“I live on a farm,” I said. “It’s on a hill overlooking a valley where a train track runs through in the distance. It’s pretty.”

Bob was quiet for a while. Then he said, “I think I’d like to get married on a farm. That would be nice.”

And then he touched me. Bob reached out to hold my wrist and to stroke my bracelet.
“Do you like my bracelet?” I asked.

“Yes,” Bob said, “it’s kind of darling.”

“I made it myself. I’m glad you like it.” Pause. “Bob, would you like to go to the animal shelter to show me where you volunteer in the cat room?”

Pause. “I don’t know,” he said, looking as if he did not want to go at all. “No, I don’t think so.”

I’d introduced the possibility much earlier in our talk to see if he might entertain a quick drive across town so that we could get some photos of him interacting with the animals. He did not want to go then and had not changed his mind. I’d also introduced Bob to Zack Schmidt, one of our alumni association photographers, who’d agreed to get some informal pictures of Bob during his visit. Bob was cordial to Zack, but he seemed uncomfortable.

Now that he’d physically reached out to me, though, I thought Bob might be ready to welcome another person into our conversation.

“Bob, I’m going to go get Zack and then we can go upstairs and take some pictures. Is that OK?”

“OK.”

When Zack and I came back to my office, I picked up a coat to put on.

“You don’t need a coat,” Bob said.

“Oh,” I said, “I thought we might go out on the balcony and look at the view.”

“You don’t need a coat.”

“Does it bother you that I put on my coat?”

“You don’t need a coat. It looks like you’re going somewhere.”

“Well, I think it might be a little chilly on the balconies upstairs, so I think I’ll wear it.”

Bob was not comfortable. Although Zack made a special effort to visit with him as we took the elevator upstairs, Bob appeared ill at ease. He stood in the corner of the elevator, his head down. He created distance between us. We looked at the boardroom and then Bob said, “I need to use the bathroom,” and he began walking away.

“Do you know where it is?” I asked.

“No.”

“Let me show you,” I said.

When Bob rejoined us, he was careful to keep his distance. We went outside to look at the campus and Zack pointed out the power plant in the distance, where Bob’s father works. Zack snapped a few unposed shots of Bob.

“Would you like to take some pictures?” I asked Bob. “Do you want to see how the camera works?”

I put the strap around his neck and Bob quickly snapped a few shots of Zack. I showed him the images on the camera’s digital screen. Bob did not seem particularly interested, although the photos he’d taken were good, focused and well-framed. He walked away from us, edging around the perimeter of the balcony.

I knew Bob was stressed and it worried me to see him walking so close to the railings around the balcony. He was moving pretty fast, too, and now my stress level had risen. Maybe this wasn’t a safe place for Bob to be.

“Shall we go to your mom’s office?” I asked. “I don’t think I have any more questions for you.”

“OK,” Bob agreed.

We all three went to the third floor, where Bob took off quickly down the hall, walking directly to his mother’s office, a space that looked identical to a dozen others along the hallway. A couple of women saw Bob and greeted him eagerly. “Hi, Bob,” one said. “What are you doing today?”

Bob sat down in Nancy’s office chair. Zack went downstairs to his own office, and I sat and waited for Nancy to return. Bob looked at his mom’s computer screen, but didn’t touch anything. He was relaxing again, it seemed, and we chatted a bit with each other and with some of Nancy’s coworkers who stopped by. Only a few minutes passed before she hurried in, explaining that she’d been working in another area.

“Did it go OK?” Nancy asked.

“Yes,” I said. “We had a good conversation.”

By spending one of his spring break afternoons with me, Bob Shaffer allowed me to become somewhat acquainted with his world.

Since we met, he’s been a busy teenager. Bob won a basketball letter for his work with the Little Hawks and his parents have ordered him a letter jacket. With the basketball season over, Bob has shifted his energies to track, where he participates with the team on a half-time basis. Already, he’s beaten his best times from last year.

And Bob has passed another milestone. Because of the timing of people’s schedules and his own extracurricular involvement, Bob now walks home from school after track practice. He’s managing the two-mile trek well.

He's begun training for the Special Olympics to be held in Ames in May, too. Bob will compete on the recumbent bicycle, something he's very good at. As local bicyclist Steve Thunder-McGuire told Nancy Shaffer, "I hope they have someone at the end to stop him! He's fast!"

Bob's yen to drive is strong and he continues to talk about his dream of getting behind the wheel. Like many teens, he sees himself tooling around town in first-class vehicles. Bob wants a Mercedes, a motorcycle, and a pickup.

At school, Bob is writing a paper on Pope John Paul II. The television was on in his homeroom class at the time white smoke billowed from the chimney above the Sistine Chapel and Bob heard the news. That evening, he was excited to tell his parents about Pope Benedict XVI. As Nancy explained to me, "When he cares about something, he pays close attention and picks up the story the first time he hears it."