Letting Go: How I Taught My Autistic Son to Be Independent

Written on March 1, 2012 at 1:00 pm , by

 

Guest blogger Glen Finland, author of Next Stop: A Memoir of Family, about preparing her autistic son for independence, shares part of her story here.

Skip the dolphin therapy. Hold the herbal supplements. We have found the cure. After all the expensive evaluations, therapies, and independent living programs for our autistic adult son, the best investment we ever made turns out to be his Metro farecard. For $1.35, David has bought himself a ticket to freedom—his own set of wheels.

In the summer of 2008 my son David and I spent weeks riding the Washington, DC, subway trains, not going anywhere, just, you know, riding from stop to stop. So it goes, when your handsome twenty-one-year-old is a rangy six-footer with a sexy five o’clock shadow and the mind of a good-natured adolescent. Pervasive developmental delays cause their own set of problems, and David’s is a kind of exuberance that reveals itself by his swinging an imaginary baseball bat whenever he’s really happy. Feet squared, wrists piled up high on his right shoulder, and swoosh! The impulse reflects an open innocence that’s way too friendly when it comes to strangers. At Eighth and F, Northwest, when a homeless man asks him for change, David pulls out his wallet and says, “OK, how much?”

But if he could learn to ride the Metro, my husband and I believed, then he could travel to a job site; and when he locked down that job, he could pay his rent. With a job and an apartment, he would have a real life. And who knows? Maybe even find somebody other than his dad and me to love him well into the future. It was a goal we could all agree on. David swung his imaginary bat whenever we talked about it.

So at the end of the summer David and I got cozy with all the different Metro routes. We visited the Zoo and met the guy who scrubs the elephants’ backs. We surfaced in Chinatown, where David walked around with a starry-eyed look on his face because of “the pretty Korean girls.” One morning, we hopped off at the Smithsonian for him to run to the Lincoln Memorial while I waited on a bench in a light downpour. Ever since he was a child, he could run like a deer, and in high school he had run cross-country. Another day, we raced up the escalators toward the wrong train and ended up lost, then doubled back and rode home the long way. We didn’t have anywhere we had to be that afternoon. No worries.

It stayed that way until the August evening when David told me he was ready to go it alone. We both knew this was coming; it was, in fact, exactly what we’d been working toward. I just hadn’t realized he’d be ready sooner than I was.

This first taste of autonomy was a reprieve from the nonstop commands that filled his days. Directions from me and all the teachers, counselors, and therapists who’ve always told him where to go, how to act, what to say. How numbingly tiresome it must’ve been, year after year after year, living with decisions someone else made for him.

Nowadays, everywhere he goes, he goes solo. When the train doors close behind him, he doesn’t bother to wave goodbye. It’s not rudeness, it’s just what’s missing from his Rules for Basic Living handbook. Riding the Metro, he chooses where his next stop will be, then steps out into the city a free man. Even though I no more know where he goes than the train knows where it’s taking him, David has learned to keep safe alone in the world. Another victory in my Letting Go Diary.

“I’m the boss of me now,” he says, answering all and none of my questions. But this is progress. So shut up, I tell myself, let him go.

Glen Finland is the author of Next Stop: A Memoir of Family due out March 29 from AmyEinhornBooks/Putnam. www.glenfinland.com

Read all our posts about autism here. And share your thoughts on Glen’s story, or your own experiences raising an autistic child, in the comments below.