The meeting of the Literary Society was just about to get
underway when the young man sitting next to me stood up and socked me in the
face. The impact knocked my
glasses across my nose and stung my cheek. He finished pulling off his jacket and sat back down next to
me. I rearranged my glasses on the bridge of my nose and thought, Aha!
Over the next hour, I paid no attention to what was
happening at the podium. Instead I
zeroed in on the vibrations from the fellow’s bouncing knee beside me. He shifted his posture continuously
throughout the presentation. Every
fifteen seconds or so he cleared his throat with a sort of guttural growl. With each new quirk I grew to like him
more and more. He was so much like
my own son.
The face of autism is changing. 500,000 children who fit somewhere along the autism spectrum
today will become adults in the next decade. There was a time when my fragile little boy fit into the
bend of my knee and I believed he would always be safe there. During those years, hard-wired to
protect him, my husband and I, and often David’s two older brothers, stepped in
as his champions. But that child
is no longer a child. My David is one of many young Americans who have come of
age in the Age of Autism, and it’s time to change the conversation.
We must turn the wheel beyond blessing and blaming, causes
and cures to the very “right now” of creating opportunities for a decent
quality of life for these young adults -- because young adults with autism are
entitled to private lives just like you and me. Of course, independence involves the dignity of risk. And
that means letting go. It hasn’t
been easy but I have found failure has been a great and empowering lesson in my
son’s life. Especially when it comes with a “do-over.” And who among us parents
doesn’t want to be able to say to our adult children, “Go lead your own
life.”? In a perfect world, it’s
the natural order of things. But I have never met anyone who lives in a perfect
Moving forward, the greatest obstacle the autism community
faces is apathy. The best way to
counter this is education of the general public. That means autism awareness
not only in the schools, but also in the job market, the housing industry, the
health system, the courts, and quite certainly the police force. But it also means making room for the
autistic worker in the cubicle beside your own. You know who I mean.
The quirky employee who jostles your arm and spills your coffee, then
walks on by. Jot this down: a sense of humor helps unruffle everybody’s feathers.
Let me tell you a little more about my David. He is a fine looking six-footer with a
five o’clock shadow and distant brown eyes. At 24, he has “aged-out” of the special education system, an
inevitability that we gave shockingly little thought to while battling school
policies and school bullies -- the quotidian conflicts parents of autistic
children spend so much energy on. Wow. It all seemed so important at the
But now, after all those exhausting years, our known
opponents have disappeared, only to be replaced by the devils we don’t
know. But what we learned was that
we should have kept our son in public school and our money in our wallet
because we are going to need it for what happens next. Because what happens next is the rest
of David’s life.
I haven’t provided you with a solution here because, as
members of my tribe are quick to point out, if you’ve met one autistic child,
well, then you’ve met one autistic child. Of course, early intervention is key, but there really is no
best way for a particular person on the autism spectrum to live his or
Still, you might want to tuck this thought away: Your loved
one’s life is about all of the choices you will make together and not just the
early ones. Whether it’s
protecting him from an unscrupulous school bully or fighting for the right to
competitive employment, the choices he makes going forward will create the map
to a life he must one day call his own.
Roots and wings, folks. It’s the best we can do.
Photos by Katri Niemi and Looking Glass