Free-Range…with Autism

Readers — This comes from a dad outside of Philadelphia.  Obviously, not every child with autism has his son’s abilities or temperament. But here is one dad’s story:

By Roy Lewis 

Our oldest is now 26…and autistic. When he was 8 we moved to a house in a nice safe suburb that was a quarter mile from a nice, safe 1920s suburban shopping mall with commuter trains and bus service. The idea was that he could have some independence as he got older, even though he probably would not be driving at the same age as his friends, if ever. 

Our son’s disability gave us extra concerns about his safety, his ability to cope with the unexpected, and public disregard and discrimination. That, and the fact that, despite being told not to talk to strangers, he talked to everyone he met. Eventually we had to define a stranger as “someone whose name you don’t know.” So he went up to anyone he saw and said “Hi, my name is Aaron! What’s yours?”
We experimented. He wanted to walk four blocks to school. So we let him…and tailed him for the first few days. He did beautifully, so we let him walk to school. Then we began to get calls that he was arriving very late. So we tailed him.

He walked in the gutter, not the sidewalk, stooping every once in a while to pick up something. He greeted every dog by name. He was greeted by name by every adult in every yard and on every porch he passed. He took 45 minutes to walk four blocks. But he was safe, happy, and had built an amazing support network all on his own. And the items from the gutter? Cigarette butts he deposited in the trash as he entered the school.

When it came time to let him walk to the shopping center alone, I though he was ready, but his mother did not. We walked together. We let him go into stores alone. We let him walk ahead. Then, one day when Mom was out, I let him walk alone…and followed, out of sight. This was disturbingly easy as our son is often blissfully unaware of surroundings—this has always been one of our biggest concerns. He reached his favorite store, and I headed home. One white-knuckled hour later he was home safe and elated! Then we told Mom.

 Today our son is fiercely independent. He walks to his job at a movie theater, or rides his bike. He takes public transportation to places I would never have imagined it goes. And he works out the schedules and routes himself—with the aid of the transit help line, ticket agents, fellow passengers, and friends he calls on his phone.

 He is still severely impaired in many ways, but his level of independence astounds us and the parents of his similarly disabled friends. We are grateful that cell phones have come into our lives, as we know that if things go a little too far awry he can call, and has.
And now we are embarking on the same journey with our precocious ten year old daughter.

Copyright, Roy Lewis

23 Responses

  1. I think you posted this just for me. Thank you.
    I have a 17 year old son that has Asperger’s (high functioning Autism). He sounds quiet like the man’s son. I am having to learn to let go more and let him learn to handle different situations. It’s hard. I know the white knuckle thing!

  2. Wow… I’ve never really thought about Free Range parenting in relation to children with disabilities. This was a fantastic article. Very interesting, thank you.

  3. I have a 6yo daughter, although not autistic, is generally blissfully unaware of her surroundings, too. We joke about her living in her own little world. I worry more about her then even my 3yo because she forgets what she is doing and where she is going…just riding her bike up and down the street. It’s hard to let go when you know things can be a bigger challenge to a certain child. I never worried about those things with my older two kids but with her…
    Things my older kids did at 4 and 5 she isn’t even allowed to do at 6. I just started letting her ride her bike outside alone. Before she had to have a sibling with her.

  4. Beautiful! I work with so many special needs kids – and just like with anything else, they need special consideration before doing routine activities. But, just like most everything – they CAN do it. 🙂

  5. My husband and I are trying to work this out with our autistic son, who is 7 and definitely wanting to stretch his wings. Part of the problem is that his level of functioning is so variable. There are times when I trust him to be aware and careful and other times when he is dangerously hyper and impulsive. Luckily, he most wants to do physical activities outside (scooter, skateboard) and those seem to be very centering for him. But letting him walk to school alone is still a frightening thought, mainly because he does not get “strangers” at all.

  6. What a beautiful story. It literally brought tears to my eyes. Good parents aren’t those who smother their kids with attention, it’s those who help their kids become functioning adults. Aaron is fortunate to have first rate parents. Good job, Roy!

  7. Thanks for this. I have a 7yo with high-functioning autism that we’re doing our best to raise free-range. It’s awfully hard to let go, but they need independence just as much as any other kid, and maybe more.

    The worry with my son is that he gets anxious, and on him anxiety can look like hostility–so, on occasion, he ends up not so much talking to strangers as shrieking at them. I wouldn’t expect him to be greeting all the adults by name on the way to school; he’d be just as likely to yell at them for talking to him.

    There’s been at least one uncomfortable situation: Down the street from us, at the end of a quiet cul de sac, he discovered a bench in a neighbor’s front garden, and loved it so much he wanted to sit there a while. She came out, angrily confronted him for daring to sit on her bench without permission, and demanded to know where his parents were. The resulting discussion, I gather, did not go well.

    But, at least he’s learned the identity of one neighbor to avoid, and hopefully absorbed the general principle that other people’s yards and porches aren’t necessarily welcoming. I sort of hate that he has to learn that, but I suppose old people yelling “get off my lawn” will always be with us.

  8. Very good article.. My 6yo is High Functioning also, but he has a sever case of hyperactivity (more than a normal 6yo’s). He too is wanting to stretch his wings, and slowly, we are working on it. It is hard and white knuckles are very much what we have. But thanks to his responsible older brother, he gets the freedom of playing at parks without mom! He loves those adventures.

  9. Thanks for posting this. I used to be a social worker who worked with people with developmental disabilities. It greatly saddened me to see middle aged people with disabilities still living with their elderly parents. Many of them had so sense of independence. This is a great story that should be the norm, rather than the exception.

  10. Delia, I’m tearing up too.

    I love this because it shows how we can teach independence (or really let them discover independence) to different children in different ways. Neither of my kids are autistic, but my versions of free-ranging is tailored to each.

    I also love that this parent went to great lengths to put their child in a situation where he would be successful…moving close to the school, close to the shopping center…nice parenting!

  11. I love how all the neighbors on the route to school knew him by name! I have noticed in two very different places I’ve lived that people who sound a lot like this guy really brought the communities closer together. The first was a suburb of Detroit, where very few people in cul-de-sac land knew each other. But there was a teen aged boy with autism who walked house to house and talked up a storm to anyone in sight. He loved to gossip, and everybody knew and liked him. More community news traveled through that kid than by any other means. The second community was in Adams Morgan, an urban neighborhood in DC. Another teen aged boy served much the same function. I was shocked walking down the street with him (which happened all the time – when he saw you he’d join you) by how many people he knew and who smiled and greeted him by name when he walked by. Homeless and wealthy people alike were pleased to see him. He walked many neighbors’ dogs, and lots (including us) trusted him with their house keys. He was (and is, I hope – sadly we moved away from that neighborhood) the unofficial mayor of Adams Morgan. I am awed by how both of these guys were unaffected by social norms regarding when you’re supposed to talk to other people in public places. And equally awed by how open so many people in both communities were to joining their conversations and becoming their friends. In fact, the communities’ embrace of these guys (and the guy in your post) is true proof that we live in a world where they – and kids – are free to be all free rangey.

  12. I have a 9-year-old with Asperger’s Syndrome. Her first impulse, upon meeting someone new, is to hug them and tell them they look pretty or kind.

    It’s hard to let our “special” kids do things for themselves. But I find she has remarkably good judgement and doesn’t take unnecessary risks.

    And while she doesn’t hug people right off the bat anymore, she does usually start a conversation with “Excuse me. I think you look pretty today. Can you please tell me where to find….” She gets some remarkable responses and often more help than she needs.

    Good for this parent. We all could learn a lesson from him.

  13. Beautiful story. Courageously filled with empathy and emotional feeling. These parents are heroes.

  14. I love this article. One reason is that it lets me know I’m not alone. My 7 year old has ADHD and Asperger’s (on Autism scale, but high functioning). Most of the other children we know with similiar diagnosis are kept on a short leash and have almost no independence. My son has been begging to walk to school (1/2 mile, wide sidewalks, somewhat busy street, firestation halfway, very very low crime area) – and we worked out a compromise last year. We walk together to the busy intersection (which is not quite halfway there) and I cross with him (it’s a round-a-bout so cars don’t actually stop in any direction and he has to cross twice to get to the the kitty-corner). Then I say good-bye and he goes the rest of the way by himself – it’s a straight shot down the same road and if I wanted to I could watch him the entire way – but I don’t.

    This summer I also started to let him ride his bike to our neighborhood playground – less than 2 minutes by bike, on paved walking/biking trails through open meadow and not on/near any streets. I don’t think it’s a big deal but other moms are questioning my sanity.

  15. Wow! I just LOVE this story. I’m a school psychologist and I wish the writer could train a few parents I know who are wonderful people but so afraid to let their autistic children take risks. This is really great.

  16. Great post and good job, parents! There is a wonderful couple in our church that has a son with Asperger’s. They have done a wonderful job with him and the entire church celebrated with the family (and cried too) when he was accepted into all three colleges that he applied to. He is so excited about moving into the dorms. I hope this story will inspire more parents to allow their children some independence.

  17. This is off-topic (as usual), but as an autistic individual I wanted to address the matter of person-first language.

    Many adults on the spectrum (not all, of course!) dislike person first language (person with autism) for a number of reasons, most of which are summed up neatly by Jim Sinclair here:

    (Can’t find the original link, I’m afraid.)

    I don’t really want to dive into the whole controversy here and now, so not appropriate, but since the person who submitted this piece refers to his son as autistic I would suggest that it may be better to use that phrase in this post.

    (Hopefully, I’m feeling much better now that I’m home! Stayed all the past 11 days with my grandmother and uncle in California. I *loathe* my uncle. On the way back, the TSA lady gave me this long speech about how “lots of kids are killed every day and pedophiles are everywhere”. “In the airport?” I ask. “No, not in the airport!” Since I didn’t have any ID I felt it wasn’t really the time to give her a lecture on the actual statistics of the situation, nor to ask why I should care about (mythical) predators when my nieces would go through the airport no more than 20 feet away from me (and in my sight) to the plane sitting next to me (and nobody else) to a car (buckled in with no adults near) to home. Even if everybody in the airport was out to get them, when would they have the chance?)

  18. Great post. Thanks for sharing your challenge, Roy.

  19. I have a child (age 11) who has epilepsy. With rare, but never any warning to them seizures we still try to let him have as much freedom as possible. I think keeping a “Free Range” attitude is even more important with our children that have obstacles. We won’t be around forever and we would be disabling our children by not giving them the absolute most independence they can have. Are there things he may never be able to do or do alone? Sure, and that makes me sad. But I keep telling him that I will not be living in the college dorm with him.

  20. What a wonderful story. My now grown up son (spina bifida, special educational needs short stature) from an early age wanted to be independent and was allowed to go to the shops etc on his own from the age of 13/14 it was the best thing we ever did for him

  21. Thanks for the great feedback! We’ve worked consistently to give Aaron as much freedom and responsibility as possible. We worked with a really great mobility therapist to help him learn to get to work on public transit. Talk about white knuckles! The therapist followed a similar train, observe, test methodology to our own, and was convinced Aaron would have no problem with the final series of tests in which he was set loose with a set of destinations another therapist observing him secretly. We weren’t so sure. Sure enough, when a strange man—a co-conspirator—asked Aaron for directions to someplace near his own destination, he offered to get in the car and show him how to get there! When the test was to get home after being dropped off in an unknown locale, the woman trailing Aaron called to report he was headed in the wrong direction—into the heart of the city. She asked if we wanted her to abort the test. We asked her to follow and see what he was doing. He went all the way into town on the trolley, then came home on the regional rail line. Why? It was hot and only the regional rail trains are air conditioned!

    Our basic approach is to give him a long enough leash to get himself in trouble, prearrange safety measures to prevent permanent damage, and let him go. The trick is to let him experience both successes and failures and still keep him safe. Without experiencing failure, he doesn’t learn his limits, or how to overcome them. But then who does?

  22. Thanks Uly, for the perspective.

  23. As a parent of a child with Asperger’s, I really apprecaite this post.

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