I have been sharing stories of our journey with autism and my son, Alex, has been generous to allow me to tell these stories. I know the power that sharing these stories have because I was fortunate to have found a community of people with Autism Spectrum Disorder and their families that shared their stories with me. In doing so I was given a fresh perspective and new found wisdom in which to live my life and to help my son to live his in the best way possible.
Now I want to share the best story of all. It is the story of Alex moving out of our home and becoming his own person. To be sure it was not without pain on my part. Like every mother when their young fly free there is a feeling of loss and a certain amount of fear. However, as sad and fearful as I felt I was also bursting with pride.
Alex had graduated from college and had secured a part time job but he was still living at home with us. I could sense his dissatisfaction and I understood that he was wanting to spread his wings. But there were some obstacles to overcome and I knew that we would need to figure out how best to move forward. I was encouraged the day he announced that he wanted to get his driver’s license. In his job searching he had come to realize that many jobs required the applicant to have a drivers license. Although Alex had obtained a Learners Permit several years prior he did not like to drive and used the permit mainly as a means of identification. When he announced that he wanted to get his drivers license I reminded him that he would need to start driving in order to become more confident. In his view he felt confident about his own ability but to quote Alex: “I don’t trust other drivers.” Who could argue that point? But from that day and that perspective Alex proceeded to drive our cars on a regular basis. After he felt ready we went to the Drivers License Office for him to take his driving test. Unfortunately, Alex did not pass the actual driving test. But fortunately, the Officer was patient and generous with his time. He talked specifically about what skills Alex needed to improve and told him to come the following Monday to try again. He assured Alex that many people do not pass their first driving test and that he shouldn’t be discouraged. That Officer had no way of knowing how truly helpful he was that day or what an impression he had made.
The following Monday arrived and Alex wanted to try again. Never mind that it was raining cats and dogs. Alex had his mind set on returning that particular Monday as recommended by the Officer and so we went. And, yes, he took the driving test in the pouring rain. And, yes, he passed.
The next conversation that came up in our family was that Alex wanted to move out on his own. There were many considerations to be made. Alex’s sister had him house sit for her as an experiment. I called every day to check on him the week that he stayed in her townhouse and took charge of making his own meals, bringing in the mail, and caring for her dog and cat. Alex’s typical replies to my questions were one word responses like “okay” and “fine” which assured me that all was well……….that is until the day I showed up at his sister’s townhouse to take him home and I overheard him telling Whitney that he had “tried to get up all the blood on the floor but….” We both exclaimed, “What blood?!?” at the same time. And indeed we found quite a bit of dried blood on the bathroom floor and learned that Alex had “knocked a hole” in his toe on the outside steps. On examination Alex had a large gash in his toe that was now infected. Since he had called his sister on her vacation to inquire as to where she kept band aids and had then proceeded to bandage his toe he felt the matter had been handled. His sister assumed it was an old wound. It seems neither his sister nor I had asked the appropriate question that would have alerted us that there was a problem. (Note to self after this incident: (1) more education for Alex on what constitutes the need for help and (2) better questions from me.)
Alex persisted in the idea of finding an apartment and living on his own. His sister intervened by pointing out that he would not be able to live on his own with only a part time job. She made the statement, “When you are working 40 hours a week, then you can live on your own.”
Finding a full time job proved difficult. Alex had little experience on his resume and job interviews were mostly stressful and disastrous. I was unaware how unskilled potential employers were in asking questions that would be helpful to them and forget helping the candidate show off their knowledge or potential. Most people are able to read into what employers are looking for in an interview. Not Alex. Questions like “if you wrote an autobiography what would you title it?” left Alex dumfounded. I understood they were looking for a self-description. Alex thought it was a ridiculous question and naturally responded, “Alex Griffin: An Autobiography”. And as much as we prepped for interviews there was no predicting what would be asked. Invariably the questions were nothing like what we had practiced. It was as frustrating for me as it was for Alex.
During that time Alex had joined an Akido Class (a form of Japanese Martial Arts). He told me one day that Bill had asked him for a copy of his resume that, of course, we provided. I had no idea who Bill was and Alex only knew him as Bill, his friend in Akido. Sometime afterwards there was a phone call for Alex and I heard him chatting away. I must admit that I eavesdropped. For one thing, I was super curious. Alex did not like to talk on the phone – much less chat cheerfully. As I grew quiet and listened to Alex’s end of the conversation I could hear Alex expounding on things he enjoyed talking about – computers and programming. It was clear to me that this was an interview. I was shocked and hopeful. When Alex hung up I asked whom he had been talking to. He replied, “Robert.” When I followed up with more questions trying to figure out who Robert was and where he’d been calling from I learned nothing. Alex didn’t know Robert aside from this phone conversation. I pointed out to Alex that it sounded to me as if Robert had been conducting a phone interview. Alex was surprised but had no further information except to say that Robert had told him that he would be hearing from Yvonne. Who was that? Who knew? Not Alex. I assumed it was a secretary and that she might provide some helpful information. And indeed she did. A few days later I was miles away leading a conference when the phone rang and it was Alex. Normally I wouldn’t take a call in the middle of a conference but it was Alex – who never calls me. AND the conference was a roomful of moms of kids with autism. I knew they would understand. I excused myself and stepped into the hallway. “Hello?” I asked anxiously.
“I’m going to get an apartment,” was Alex’s reply. Whoa! Hold on.
“What are you talking about?” I asked. Whereupon Alex told me that Yvonne had called and offered him a part-time job and so with two part-time jobs that equaled 40 hours per week he could now afford an apartment. I was a mixture of surprise, confusion, happiness, and terror. After a while I figured out that Yvonne was not a secretary but the head of a department at the local University who, as it turns out, was married to Bill, the friend from Alex’s Akido Class. And so it was that Alex was finally able to move into an apartment and live on his own. His apartment was within walking distance of one of his part-time jobs and on the bus route of his second part-time job. So that was certainly convenient. There were other things to be sorted out – like how to rent an apartment when you had no credit – not to mention putting utilities in your name – but eventually that all got figured out. And lest you think that his living on his own was without a bump or two or three or even four, let me say that there were adventures along the way but such is life, right? Alex was determined. And I was brave – at least, I tried to be.
As Alex explored life on his own I was no longer privy to his day-to-day interactions and activities. As his mother this felt strange, a little sad and yet totally as it should be. Of course, I worried about him – that’s part of a mom’s job, right? But I also knew that there is a certain amount of falling down and picking oneself up that has to happen in life. We simply cannot protect our children from every failure if they are to learn how to get along in the world – whether or not they have autism. I could also feel Alex’s resistance to my questions – especially knowing that he has always viewed questions as “interrogations”. So I had to limit myself in that area. Besides I didn’t want him to dread seeing or talking to me. I wanted our visits to be positive experiences – for both of us. But there were a couple of things that I was especially concerned about – his general knowledge regarding finances and his guileless nature which put him at risk to grifters. For those reasons I thought it would be wise for him to have a mentor – someone he would feel comfortable talking to but less scrutinized. I was fortunate that he had a good relationship with his older sister. I knew she would have his best interest at heart and he could feel at ease telling her things he might not want to share with me.
So life was moving along pretty well for a while. Alex was happy. We were enjoying our empty nest. And then I learned from an anonymous source (not his sister) that Alex was dating online. I nearly fainted dead away. I made a frantic call to his sister who was unaware of this turn of events. I was not opposed to Alex dating – in fact, I had hoped that would happen. But I was concerned about the possibility that he could so easily be taken advantage of. The idea of online dating was scary to me as someone who grew up in a totally different era. However, I had several friends who had managed it quite successfully so I wasn’t totally freaked out. Additionally, I knew this venue would be more manageable for Alex. What I wanted was a reputable company that did background checks – like E-Harmony or Match.com. However, Alex was strongly opposed to these companies for political and personal reasons and I had to respect his opinion. Alex’s sister, Whitney, reviewed safety rules with Alex and he was amenable to reading the book “Dating for Dummies”. There was nothing else I could do but cross my fingers and toes, hold my breath, hope, and pray.
I was as curious as the most curious mother cat could be but Alex was stingy with his information. I had to be satisfied with whatever little morsel he doled out. The first girl Alex connected with was named Chewey. I don’t know if it was her only name but it was the only name Alex shared. It sounded strange and I wondered if it had to do with food. I mean: what’s up with a name like Chewey? I relaxed when Whitney told me that Alex met up with Chewey to play at a Board Gaming Room. That seemed like they might have something in common and I figured she wasn’t a stripper. But for whatever reason that relationship didn’t last long although it did widen his social circle with other gamers.
The next girl I heard tell of was named Muffin. Period. Muffin. Good Grief! In my mind, she was probably a Pole Dancer. So I was relieved when Alex had moved on to another girl whose name was Deborah. Ahhh! Deborah. That sounded wholesome enough. I’d just have to wait and see. And then along came a girl named Santana. Oh, Lord. Probably another Pole Dancer – is what I was thinking. And worrying set in.
The next thing that happened was that Alex called me and asked, “If you meet a girl for dinner and you sit at the restaurant and talk for three hours would you consider that a successful evening?” Indeed I would and I said so. I was impressed by several things at that point: (1) that Alex had actually called to tell me something (2) that he had clearly enjoyed himself (3) that if Santana was a Pole Dancer at least she had a brain. The next thing that happened is that my daughter was acting in a local theater group and Alex took this girl to see the current play and his sister got to meet her. Whitney not only liked Santana, as it turned out, they shared a mutual friend who told Whitney that this girl was very nice. So at least if she was a Pole Dancer, she was a nice Pole Dancer. Time passed – in fact, a few months went by with no other news on the dating front. And then one day Alex called and asked if he could bring Santana to dinner at our house. Of course! When? Saturday night? Absolutely. I hesitated only a few seconds after that and then I asked if Santana was a Southern girl. He said that she was – actually raised in North Carolina about 100 miles East of us. And then I explained that Southern girls know that if a man invites you to meet his family that means that he is “serious” about her. Did he know that? And did he know what it means to be “serious” about someone? Yes, he did – on both counts. Okay then. We would be looking forward to Saturday night.
I pause here to interject a few important things you should know. The time of year was early June and the evenings had been quite nice and my husband and I had been enjoying evenings on our patio. I thought perhaps Santana might enjoy our patio, too. Alex hates sitting outside. Additionally, since Alex had moved into his own apartment whenever we invited him to dinner he would come, we would revel in his company, and he would leave directly after dessert. We often tried to entice him with a movie we thought he would like but he would politely decline and be on his way. Sigh. We decided to be happy with whatever he was willing to give.
So back to this particular Saturday night in June: Alex arrived looking a little shy but very pleased with himself. He glowed with pride when he introduced us to his gorgeous date. Santana was charming, graceful, warm, friendly, intelligent, and a complete delight. And even if she had been a Pole Dancer I would have loved her. But she turned out to be a preschool teacher. She thoroughly enjoyed being on the patio and we ended up eating dinner there as well as dessert. The fact is the four of us sat together that evening talking and laughing until after midnight. And that, as they say, is history. As of this writing, these two beautiful souls have been married for five years. The rest of the story belongs to them.