Yesterday was one of those days that will stay with me forever, locked in my memory, as one of the best days ever . . . it was almost surreal. It was a day of smiles and conversation and joy – pure joy. I took my 27 year old autistic son shopping, which in itself is always fun, but yesterday we were window shopping for very specific items for his new apartment and it was especially memorable. Yes, I really did say that – Matt’s new apartment. Matt is now on a waiting list for an apartment of his very own. The apartments are exclusive for those who are either disabled or elderly. His label on the spectrum is in the moderate to severe range and he is mostly non-verbal. And he is taking that step toward independence – something every single professional told me would never take place. In my stubbornness I ignored those negative voices, shut out those disparaging comments about what the future would be like, and listened to only two things; my heart and my son, Matt.
I knew the road was all uphill. I knew the destination. Goals were set . . . small, almost insignificant, goals. They were spread out before us and there were so many that they looked intimidating and at times, unconquerable. The road forward wasn’t even a road back then as we knew absolutely no one who had taken this journey. We were about to embark on an adventure that almost everyone thought we would never finish. Two steps forward, one step back, year after year. Slowly, we made our way up that hill.
The obstacles were many; making eye contact, learning sensory integration, joining in family interactions, allowing social development, teaching me his communication, getting him a real education, learning hygiene, cooking, and cleaning, logging his finances, practicing self sufficiency, and stepping up to take personal responsibility – oh, the list could go on for miles. We took one day at a time and celebrated even the simplest of accomplishments. We were intensely focused some days and totally oblivious of his autism on other days. There were days he needed to work hard and there were days where he needed to just flap away and spin. The most important goal was making him feel confident. The more self-esteem he possessed the braver he became. His courage to step into the unknown time and time again never ceased to amaze me.
Then it hit me yesterday, 25 years after the onset of autism and his diagnosis, that my youngest son does indeed have a very bright future. We looked at furniture and household goods and at first he just looked with me. I talked about his new place, his own stuff in his own apartment. I gave him a step by step of what we still needed to do and I smiled and gave him high-fives. I walked him over to a grouping of simple tables and chairs and stopped. I looked at each one and gave him pros and cons of each, then turned and faced my son. “Which do you like best?” The ball was in his corner. He strode past each, took a deeper interest in how each was made, sat in the chairs, and then turned to me, “I like this one” a huge smile gracing his face. “I love that one!” I replied running my hand over the glass table and onto the price tag. “OK, write down the price.” Matt took note of the price and we moved on toward the recliners. For each thing I touched I would tell him specifics about fabric, taking care of it, the advantages and the disadvantages. Matt would step in and examine each for him self. I continued to lead by example and Matt continued to thoroughly examine all prospective items and consider his options. Sounds so “normal”, right?
He spoke yesterday more than he ever has in one day. He talked about the furniture, his plans for his new apartment, his desires for where he wanted to be 10 years from now. He talked about vacations that we would take and places he wanted to see this summer. He talked about shopping for his own groceries. Our next stop was the grocery store close to his soon-to-be new home.
He got his own cart and went down specific aisles and gathered up the items that make him happy. I shopped separately. We met in one aisle and he excited told me about each item. Matt has shopped before. He has a lot of practice under his belt and was eager to show me his skills. He conversed from one store to the next and on the trip home. His words were in stutter-form and some difficult to release, but he kept at it and never let frustration shut him down. His excitement was so great and his joy so immense that every thought had to released – and I was loving it all. My son said more to me in one day than I had heard in a year.
We talked, we laughed, we walked together in some stores and each on a different path in other stores only to meet up and walk together again. It was the sum of our whole life together in one afternoon.
People still ask, “Do you think he is ready?”, “Can he really do it?”, “Shouldn’t he get more practice?” and my all time favorite, “What will you do after he is gone?” Ha!!
First, yes, he is ready. He has been ready and I have held him back due to finances. We now are financially able to get him started. He has shown immense patience waiting on me. Yes, he can really do this. We have prepared him through years and years of making goals, giving him the tools he needs and showing him we believe in him. He has the confidence to not only try, but to succeed. No, he has practiced enough and through his practice I have seen a young man blossom. There comes a point when practice must be put into action. And, I will be fine…I will be more than fine.
I will be the one who sees him through the transition – which will take only a few short years. I will be the one who helps him over the new hurdles, shows him new skills and cheers him on every single day. I will be the one who pulls back slowly allowing him to not only stretch out those wings, but fly – fly to new heights to soar confidently on his own. I will be the one who cries the tears of joy as I watch the most amazing person I have ever met beat all the odds. I have fought all his battles with him and have done my best to get him to this point. I am almost finished with being his teacher and as a teacher I know when it is time to step away. I will step away slowly, almost imperceptible, until he is absolutely on his own. Then, when he is no longer in need of me as his teacher I can be who he truly wants me to be – just his best friend.