I thought watching J’s friends go off to college would be the hardest part of the new school year. I’m not saying watching J’s friends spread their wings isn’t hard–it definitely is. Watching J’s emotional ups and downs the half hour before J and C ran their last run together before C went out to college definitely pulled on this momma’s heart strings a bit.
J will ask every once in a while when it’s his turn for college and then tells me he wants to go too. When I ask him what his plans are for going to college, J responds a little sadly and very truthfully, “I don’t know. I don’t know what college is.”
That’s the blessing and the curse of inclusion. J’s been included in the mainstream classroom, participated in “regular” PE, “regular” choir, the XC and track team–all with accommodations to one degree or another, but he’s been included. Most of his friends throughout the years have been neurotypical kids. Now, for the first time in his life, J hasn’t been “mainstreamed” or “included” in his neurotypical peer’s experience. And you can tell he’s trying to work his head around that.
I’ve assured J that his friends C, R, K, M are going to more school and that they’re all off on their own at different schools. “Just like I’m going to my own school,” he said (referring to the 18 plus program). “Yeah,” I said. “You’re going to school to learn how to work. They’re going to school to learn more and do more homework, and then they’re going to learn how to work.”
J seemed satisfied with this. He doesn’t “love” school (AKA academics). And over the summer, J has been starting to make new friends in his weekly bike group at The Great Northern Bike Company and his biweekly running group at Beyond Running in Fargo. Most of the participants are in their late twenties, thirties, forties, (and more), but the people in both groups have really embraced J (I LOVE THE FARGO COMMUNITY!) and he’s starting to feel more comfortable with them too. So watching the fledglings (J’s friends) leave the nest and move on has been a little hard, and feeling that sense of loss of J not having those social college experiences has been hard too, but it’s something we’ve been able to work through and we’re finding our own new way.
The real hard part is that post high school independence he’s been exerting, on par with the rest of his neurotypical friends. The desire to set his schedule and do the things he wants to do on his own time (which looks like a whole lot of laziness from a parenting perspective). He gets mad at us if we tell him what to do or have to give him a half-dozen reminders to take care of his responsibilities (AKA chores). The last few weeks of summer leading into the school year have always been hard, but this year, I think, tops them all. He’s done with my nagging. I’m done with nagging him. Even though he’s behind developmentally in so many ways, he’s on par with the “moving on” part. And that’s what’s been REALLY hard. I’ve heard people say the last few months before your kid leaves the nest are the hardest so that you as a parent are ready to let them leave the nest. Both J and I are living that “hardest” part daily. But in our case, there’s no leaving the nest.
Getting out the door Wednesday morning for the first day of the 18 plus program was rough. It was rough the night before too. J kept repeating over and over that he was nervous. When I asked him why, he said, “I’m worried there’s going to be a fire drill.” Those #$&! fire drills. That debilitating anxiety was a reminder for both of us that he’s not ready to leave the nest. It was a reminder that he does need support to help him get through his anxiety, and it’s that anxiety that prevents him from learning and growing (on top of the other autism factors that make daily interaction and learning hard).
After holding my breath the entire day, J came home and Steve relayed to me that the day had went, after all, really well. J had remembered the coping strategies and repeated his little mantras learned from the last few years in high school. It was such a relief. Maybe he’s making his little independence steps too, in his own way. They’re small, and tiny, but maybe, just maybe, some day in the future J will have his day where he will take flight into his independence too.