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