An autistic son leaves the nest

Boston Globe Magazine, May 13, 2012

“MOMMY WILL GO HOME,” my son said a few weeks ago, causing my heart to flip over. This, after all, was what we’d wanted—for Nat to be able to say he was OK staying in his group home without me. Now that he is 22 and finally finished with school, it is right that he has moved out of his childhood home to start a new life.

So why do I feel so blue?

It doesn’t make sense. Nat has pretty severe autism, and so life with him has never been easy. I had nothing to compare him to when he was a little guy and I saw him withdrawing from other children or simply staring at his toys. Back then, the early ‘90s, there was so much less autism around—well, there was so much less autism diagnosed—that it seemed as if my son was the only one. Every other child I knew appeared to be developing typically and acted very differently from Nat. Nat lined his toys up perfectly and then simply sat and waited—and so did I.

It is always difficult for me to know what he’s thinking or what he wants. He does not express himself easily or clearly most of the time. His language is quirky, hesitant, and childlike. So I often have to speak for him. I almost have to think for him as well.

OK, so be it. I move forward like a shark, watching for the next thing I have to attack on Nat’s behalf. I must focus on what’s important: creating some kind of life for him. I hire people to hang out with him. I pay for trips he goes on with his social group—trips to the theater, to concerts, to BU hockey games. I’d been working on making him a life ever since he was a little boy with an overwhelming diagnosis, scoping out tolerant playmates and moms, throwing over-the-top birthday parties to make sure people would come. And in the same way, for the last year and a half, with the same relentless strategizing, networking, and cajoling of others, I have put together his group home.

With so little from him to go on, it’s always been a lot of work to get Nat what he needs, and it has sometimes been hard to remember what it’s all for. Sometimes it’s as if my relationship with Nat is one big checklist, titled “OK, what’s next?” It used to say things like “Find a better school,” “Find a Saturday activity,” “Hire a new home therapist.” Later, it said things like “Switch him to adult dental practice.”

Check, check, check. And then, suddenly, he has moved out; he is living in the group home. It is done, just the way we all had planned.

So I am momentarily at a stopping point, the most puzzling feeling I’ve ever encountered as Nat’s mom. A major part of my life is over. I feel relief, of course, and triumph gets through my foggy brain at times, but often I feel something like postpartum depression, too. I’m a bit at loose ends. Nat no longer needs me, at least not in the same way he did.

I guess it is like any other adult child, though. For when Nat told me to go home, even though he said it in his odd, childlike way, he was staking his claim in the adult world. It doesn’t matter that his home, which he calls his “apar-ment,” is actually a supported group home, that his roommate is a paid caregiver, that his life is supplemented by government programs.

Because it turns out he does know what is important: to have a life of his own. And so Mommy will go home.