The One True Gift We Gave to Our Son With Autism


As the parent of a teenager learning to drive, I was an utter failure. When my daughter, Natalie, took the wheel, I was such a wreck that it’s a wonder she learned to drive at all.

Several months after getting her license, she offered to take her brother, Daniel, for ice cream. While she’d proven to be a fine driver, I couldn’t help watching as she backed down the driveway, shouting advice and directions, gesturing like a traffic cop as she veered toward our neighbor’s lawn.

“You’re not helping!” Natalie yelled out the driver’s window as she inched toward the street.

“Be careful!” I cried redundantly.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah!” she yelled back, waving me off.

“Both hands on the wheel!” I bellowed in reply. “I mean it now!”

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As she shifted from reverse into drive, I observed Daniel in the passenger seat, eyes scrunched tight and hands over his ears, desperate, no doubt, to block the din of our banter. But as I teased Natalie later, it was as though he couldn’t bear to watch as he placed his life in his sister’s hands.

Eighteen months later, our mood was less jovial as we moved Daniel to a residential school in another state, an hour and a half from home. He was 15 years old. Seven years ago today, I let go of my son, placing his welfare in the hands of people I barely knew, relying on faith that we were doing the right thing for our cherished, special child. It was the most painful thing I’ve ever done.

I’d had several months to prepare and accept that he could no longer be educated through conventional special ed channels or safely cared for at home. The school we’d chosen was highly regarded, known for its success with students with behavioral issues. We toured and met the staff, asking every question we could think of. I talked to friends whose own son resided at the school, comforted by their positive experience. We were as confident as we could be that we were making the best decision possible under difficult and heartbreaking circumstances.

Yet there was no real way to prepare Daniel for the life change ahead, to explain our actions had his best interest at heart and that we’d done everything we could and it was still not enough. Words could not convey to our nonverbal, autistic child our profound love as we left him in an unfamiliar place and his care now in the hands of others. My dark fear that he’d believe we’d abandoned him almost broke me as I clung to the fragments of my tattered, trembling faith.

After Daniel’s move, I rarely practiced that faith, traveling to Wisconsin most Sunday mornings to visit him. In truth, I was glad for the excuse to leave the church behind. My parents were both gone by then, their memories filling the space they helped build before I was born and the church of my childhood imbued with more sorrow than comfort, awash in reminders of all that was lost too soon. The old hymns and liturgies were haunting in their constancy — vestiges of what I once believed invulnerable.

I attended church a few weeks ago, however, and met the new pastor for the first time.

“They say ‘America’s Got Talent,’ but I beg to differ,” she joked in her sermon, noting that reality TV rarely depicts a truly useful skill, a precious gift or a worthwhile endeavor.

“The high school teacher who makes algebra come alive — that’s talent,” she continued. “The musician who brings tears to your eyes. The parent whose children know they are loved.”

I missed much of what came next. I was suddenly back seven years to the third night after we’d left Daniel in Wisconsin.

We’d spoken every day to his floor manager, Kip, whom Daniel had taken to immediately. So far he’d adapted remarkably, Kip told us, better than most new residents. We’d been advised not to visit for 30 days, but Daniel was adjusting so well that Kip thought we may be able to come sooner, possibly for Christmas.

My voice broke with relief and gratitude as I thanked him.

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“Daniel is going to be fine,” Kip assured me. “He is secure in a way I don’t see very often. This is a child who knows that he is loved.”

I doubt Kip will ever understand how much those words meant to me and that they remain the most meaningful thing I’ve ever been told.

For all the ways I felt we’d failed him, we had given Daniel that one gift.

He knew he was loved. He knew we would come for him again.

It’s been a turbulent few years with my son. I wonder sometimes if he still knows the depth of my love for him, and how I treasure him despite the distance that separates us; if he remembers the love I could once demonstrate each day, waking him in the morning and seeing him to bed at night. I wonder what my weekly visits evoke in him. Are they like the old liturgies of my childhood, stirring memories of faith once held without question with the melodies now echoing both loss and promise?

Does he know me, still? Does he remember? Have the seven years he’s been gone blurred his sense of me, or do I remain one thing he knows to be true, to be constant, no matter what? He asks for me, but what is he seeking now? Does the memory of my love wound in my absence, or is it one true gift that distance cannot diminish?

I don’t know the answers for sure. But I keep faith that he does know, that he has always known, that I am with him and that he will always, always be loved.

Follow this journey on Good Marching: Experiences in Autism and the Rest of Life.

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