The Pain of Sending My Autistic Son to Residential School

Sometimes the toughest, most painful parental decisions are the right ones.

Psychology Today, December 20, 2020

Thirteen years ago, my husband and I began reluctantly discussing the possibility of sending our autistic teenage son Nat to live at his school. He was 17 at the time. Coming to terms with the painful prospect of his moving out took a long time and considerable planning. And yet, it also happened in a split second. I think the real decision was made right during one of Nat’s more frightening outbursts, which I only remember in fragments. What stands out to me is the thought I had then: I can’t do this. I can’t live like this anymore. It had been months of almost daily incidents, where Nat would become frantic, screaming and biting himself and clawing at us, about anything that was not quite right: a porch light left on during the daytime; the bagel bag that fell out of the freezer onto his foot. The everyday things out of whack had sudden and terrible consequences and were like land mines in our family.

So, after a year of discussion with the school, Nat was going to move to a group home run by his school. The prospect of the move-out brought me no relief. At that point, I felt like the timing could not be worse. As often happens with these kinds of things, the difficult, explosive phase of last year also contained some wonderful triumphs for Nat: his first job in the community, at a Papa Gino’s, and his solid teamwork at his Special Olympics basketball games.

Because of all his amazing progress, I was torn about our decision. Even though he was now 18, and would probably thrive there, I was tormented that maybe I should have tried harder to make our home life work for him. Would he feel like we abandoned him? There was no way to know. There were only the choices that lay before me.

My only relief was to go on long, hard bike rides. One day, as I pushed up a hill, I was so choked with grief that I almost stopped. “I can’t do this,” I thought, like before, only this time I was envisioning my home without Nat, and it felt like my heart was breaking. I suddenly flashed to a memory of when he was a baby, and it seemed I was constantly asking God for help. But back then, unknowing young mother that I was, my requests were about random, unfounded fears, like these: “Don’t let him get sick,” or, “Don’t let him turn out to be a criminal.”

Stopped on that hill, I thought again about God and asking for help. But I didn’t. I wanted action, not prayer. I wanted some peace, but that seemed out of reach. Sobbing there on my bike, I let the wind dry my face as I coasted downward.

My mother called me early the next morning. She was still in bed, but she told me she had thought of me as soon as she woke up. I just talked and talked, while Mom listened, only murmuring from time to time, holding me gently with her soft voice. “I thought I would ask God for help,” I confided. There was a tiny pause. “Oh? And did you?” she asked carefully, probably not wanting to intrude or say the wrong thing. “No, not yet,” I said.

When I hung up, I still felt sad. But I also noticed a satisfying emptiness, a regularity to my breathing, as if something inside me had become unstuck. OK. I knew I was going to try to follow through with my plan for Nat. Let him move out, but carefully evaluate it, and frequently.

It did not have to be forever! But it was the decision I had made for now.

I really don’t know when it all stopped hurting. But it did. That quiet, soothing little conversation with Mom worked better than any prayer I could have uttered. And 12 years later, Nat did come back home to live with us during the COVID-19 quarantine. But now, he loves his current group home so much that he periodically asks when he’s going back. His anxiety resurfaces, but now it’s about wanting to go back. For he’s a man now—31—and he has learned from both positive and negative experiences how to live life away from me. Now the problem is, I’m enjoying him here so much I don’t want him to go back. But now, it’s not up to me. It’s his decision.