I am a college educator with a daughter who has autism.
One day, when my child was in first grade, I made the offhand comment after a school meeting that I would have so much free time if I didn’t have to attend constant meetings about services and therapy. A therapist, who was probably having a bad day, snapped that “other parents have problems, too.”
I did not mean to suggest that others had it easy. However, having a child with a disability is different than having a child who is neurotypical, even when that child might have other challenges. I have two children: one neurotypical, and one diagnosed with autism. There is some overlap, but they have presented two completely different challenges as they have grown up and prepared for college.
One challenge has been the advent of adulthood. For my neurotypical child, I know it is coming and welcome it. For my child with autism, I was caught a little off-guard. She turned 18, and the world started to actively work to shut me out. I now had legal forms to fill out if I wanted to remain in her life and participate in her decision-making. This is especially true in college.
My daughter is a college freshman now. I actually knew that my child would have to sign this form (referred to as “FERPA,” or the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) so I could have access to her information. What surprised me was that she hesitated. I assumed she would want my input, want my help, but I suddenly saw a young adult who very much wanted to become an adult.
Viewing this journey both as a parent and as a college educator is a bit like having a split personality.
My parent side is strong. After all, I have battled daily for years and years to give my child a decent chance at an education. I have been Sisyphus, pushing my child toward graduation, one step forward, two steps back. There were days I felt defeated only to get up the next morning and start all over again. So hanging on, pushing hard, and being there for my child — like, right there, waiting outside the door — that is ingrained in me.
Now I seen her as a young adult, and enter my educator brain.
She is going to fail. She is going to have hard days. She is going to be alone — and I have to let her. I actually went back to look at a couple of books as I contemplated this a couple of years ago. Temple Grandin’s Emergence: Labeled Autistic and John Elder Robison’s Look Me in the Eye both gave me insight into the childhood of successful autistic adults. I had read both books earlier in my life, but as I went back, I wanted to focus on one thing: their late teens.
Temple was away at school. Her mother was not hovering over her. She spent evenings on a roof, watching the stars, contemplating the new life that high school graduation brought to her. She understood that life was changing, and she realized that her future was up to her. Her mother supported her, but she did not hover.
John Elder Robison, by the time he was in his late teens, had actually left home. He was alone, finding a way to keep himself afloat, and discovering that his gifts would bring in a paycheck. Again, no hovering mother.
I take it from these examples of remarkable autistic adults that maybe at some point I, as a parent, need to send my child out to figure the world out on her own. And so I back away.
She has surprised us. It hasn’t always been smooth, but she is young and resilient, up for the challenge. I remember that rush of pride, the joy of freedom that came with being a young adult. The sense of confidence I built on my own, proving to myself that I was capable and tough. I cannot build that for my daughter, but I can certainly help her, and I do that by letting her go out to fight her battles, and shutting the door behind her.