Tom got a new assignment in Durham – close to home. As part of his job package he gets a fancy-dancy apartment. Matt was ready for the new adventure and happily packed for his new destination.
After a week, Tom and Matt returned home for the weekend and all was normal again – but just for the weekend. They left again and this time I returned with them for a short vacation between semesters.
I got the grand tour of their new bachelor pad. No, Tom is not the bachelor - Matt is. The apartment had its own washer-dryer,dishwasher, internet, cable, and furnished with all new pieces; couch, chair, table, bed, dresser and even linens. It had a weight room, 2 pools and 2 tennis courts. For all its amenities it lacked a touch of home. So, after Tom left for work Matt and I decorated. We hung pictures, organized closets and moved the furniture. Matt put in the wall hangers, decided which pictures to hang where and organized all his stuff. I showed him how to use the dishwasher and gave him this chore. We all explored the apartment complex and the shopping district and Matt was excited to find all his regular hangouts.
Now comes the hard part – giving him independence.
I’m back home in Virginia,Tom is back to work and Matt is the king of his new domain. He is learning how to run the washer and dryer so he can do his own laundry. He is using the phone everyday to call his mother (and I anxiously await his calls each afternoon). But now it is time tomove forward. Matt will be going for walks – by himself. His first practice is tomorrow afternoon. Tom will be giving Matt his own key and pass card. He’ll walk alone on a path around the apartments and he’ll go to the weight room using his pass card. All the while Tom will be watching – from a discrete distance. Matt has been asked to call me when he leaves and call me upon his return. Our instructions were fairly simple: take your cell phone, key, pass card and MP3 player and enjoy your walk. For added safety I had Tom write a note for Matt to carry in his pocket. The note is pretty straight-forward – Name, address, emergency call numbers and that Matt is autistic.
It’s a hard thing to do – letting go. For parents of an autistic child, or any handicapped child for that matter, it is especially difficult. You have to fight with yourself. Part of me says, “Protect him at any cost” and another part shouts back, “What kind of life is that?” The argument continues between the warring factions of my brain, “He could get hurt, he could get lost, he could run into unscrupulous people” is countered with “He’s a man and needs to find his place. Give him some credit for his intelligence – he won’t get lost. Everyone risks the unknown – let go and give him a chance”. It’s very difficult to be a parent of an autistic son as the mind battles are almost constant.
But I listen to my son. I listen to his dreams and his desires for independence and I want him to always feel supported and loved. Matt really is a man – not a child. We want him to one day be on his own to enjoy life as he sees fit. So, we practice. We practice chores, we practice phone calls,we practice eating habits and personal hygiene and now we are about to embarkon practicing the freedom of movement.
Tom will work the day after Matt’s first secured practice-walk. Matt will call me – excitedly, I’msure – as he embarks on his first unaccompanied walk and activity. He will know real freedom and he will enjoy himself tremendously. He’ll explore the area and visit the weight-room. He’ll take his time. And when he returns back to the apartment he will call me and tell me all about his wonderful new daily activity – and I will fight back tears of joy as I listen to his voice - his deep grown-up voice.
Most of you know the old saying Life Is What You Make It. We are trying, struggling, fighting, and pushing ourselves to make Matt’s life as he would want it – to be totally independent. Each step may seem so small and yet each is a leap of faith. It would be much easier to just take care of him – to treat him as a child. Matt’s autism makes him appear as a child in my mind - but that’s just because he is my child. I know that Matt is all grown-up. He looks like a man. He wants to feel like a man. And so I push myself to let go – slowly. Practice not only gives Matt self confidence and a safety net, it gives me the time I need to adjust to the simple fact that Matt needs his freedom.
In each precarious step along the way, we are all finding the strength to keep moving forward.