A Cyber-Bullying Story With a Twist
A young man with autism, a stranger's angry text, and a surprise ending
“U are a loser, u have no friends,” read the text that prompted Matthew to call 911.
He called me as I was driving to meet a friend for lunch and told me about the text.
“I feel a bit sad and a bit scared,” he said quietly.
Matthew is 26 years old and has autism. He lives in a community near Santa Cruz with other adults with developmental disabilities. When people ask me “how severe” he is I take a deep breath and tell them they would really like Matthew. He’s friendly and earnest, and will ask which version of the song “Oh Pretty Woman” you like best before he even said hello. He has a hard time making and keeping friends but has gotten better at it as he matures, and the friends that he has collected over the years are loyal and true — the best people I know. Still, Matthew opens the phonebook regularly and looks up people that he remembers from childhood and calls. If he get’s through, it’s usually to the person’s mother.
So when Matthew told me about the mean text message, and asked me to have the texter arrested, I thought it might be from a person that Matthew had called over and over and over again, possibly a wrong number, and left one too many messages.
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“Do you want to hang out? Call me back when you get this message.” “It’s Matthew again. Please call me back. I want to hang out.” “I’m tired of leaving all these messages. Will you please call me back?”
For years I have coached Matthew that this kind of behavior was not OK.
“Just call once,” I tell him repeatedly . “Leave a message. Don’t call again, even if the person does not call you back. A lot of your old friends have moved on and are busy with work — just like you.”
I glanced at the time. I had thirty minutes before I needed to meet my friend. I searched for a wifi hotspot, pulled over and logged into ATT, my laptop wedged between my chest and the steering wheel. I studied the “data” usage and found the number of the texter. I panicked when I noticed that he had sent Matthew several messages, but thankfully, Matthew had only discovered the most recent one that was sent that morning. I scribbled his number onto a gum-wrapper and wondered what I’d do with it.
I’ll figure it out later.
My friend was already seated at the restaurant when I arrived, and the waiter was taking her drink order.
“I’d love a diet coke,” I said, my throat aching intensely from the maternal lump lodged there.
“I’m sorry, we don’t carry diet coke,” said the waiter, tapping the drink menu, which was all organic and sustainable.
My friend said I looked like I could use a glass of wine, but I said no, water’s fine.
She is a good friend, so I told her about the text. “Matthew must be devastated,” she said. “There must be some sort of cell phone reverse directory where you can find out who this person is.”
I looked at the organic, sustainable menu. Sunchoke soup. Grilled fig sandwich. Marinated olives and white bean spread. Organic Greens. I sighed. All I wanted was some real food, normal food. Maybe the organic greens will come with a roll, I thought.
I glanced at my phone. 5 missed calls from Matthew. I stepped outside to call him back.
“I am seriously upset and hurt,” he repeated, “and that mean person should go to jail.”
I asked him if the number that I had scribbled on the gum wrapper sounded familiar.
“It might,” Matthew said. I asked him if he might have called that number by mistake and left messages. He paused. “Probably yes. But I’m not going to anymore because that person is a jerk.” I told him I loved him, and that I was proud of him, and that he learned some important lessons today.
My salad was being served when I got back to the table. It looked like the salad I had dumped out of a plastic bag the night before, but on a fancier plate with a few pomegranate seeds sprinkled on top. No roll. My friend was munching on her fig sandwich.
We talked about other stuff — but I was preoccupied and worried that the cyber-bullly was a real threat.
The waiter brought the check, cleverly pinched in a wooden clothespin and placed it on the table daintily. My friend and I looked at each other and rolled our eyes. We pulled the check out and replaced it with our payment.
I have an idea, my friend said. Text the texter, and tell him that if he ever writes Matthew a mean message again, you’ll call the police.
After lunch, I sat in my car and entered the texters number into my phone and wondered what to write.
“You wrote my son a mean message. If you do it again, I’ll call the police.”
Voop, went the message, and I drove home.
I could have told the texter that his was the first text message Matthew had ever received, and that he’s not the kind of person who can get a message like that and just blow it off. I could have mentioned that Matthew had autism, and that he is very sensitive about how much lower his friend count is compared to that of his two younger brothers.
But it didn’t really matter. I was sure anonymous texter didn’t care.
As I pulled into the driveway, I heard my phone buzz, and looked down.
“Hahaha cool bro” it read, not the “OK, sorry” that I hoped for.
Matthew called me again right before dinner.
“I have some good news to tell you,” he said cheerfully. “That jerky person whose name is Omar called me and told me he was very sorry for what he did, so he’s now a good guy.”
Thank you, Omar.
I had not predicted such a happy ending.
“I was very strict with this person Omar and told him he hurt my feelings big time, and to never do that again.”
I reminded Matthew to watch his telephone manners, too.
“I’m done with the phone book,” he replied. “I’m strict with myself, too.”
We shall see….
Laura Shumaker’s memoir about life with Matthew, called A Regular Guy: Growing up with Autism, is available on Amazon.