What a High School Rite of Passage Taught Me About My Son With Autism


My son TJ is 16. He has autism.

He is starting his junior year and so excited to be halfway done with high school – a thought that, as his mother, makes me a little panicky. But I digress.

On Monday we got his schedule for the new school year in the mail.  He was so excited to open it!  And the first class on his first day was Driver’s Ed.

Driver’s Ed. Did I mention I get a little panicky?

No matter, because I studied theater in college, so whenever I have that parent panic, I go instantly into actress mode, and do my best “I am so easy breezy it’s not even funny” type of mother acting.

It usually works quite well.

It worked well this time, too, which is good, because when big things come up for TJ that we need to work through, I don’t want him to be influenced by me in any way.

So when I saw “Driver’s Ed” on his schedule, I smiled and said “TJ, you got Driver’s Ed!  That’s great!  So many kids want that class and don’t get it!”

It’s a hot commodity, this class. You can register for it after you’re 15 years old and you can’t get your license without it, unless you wait until you’re over 18. And if memory serves, not many kids want to wait until they are 18 to start driving.

TJ’s first reaction was to smile and say, “Great!” And then I said to him, “TJ, in order to take this class, you have to have your learner’s permit. We can sign you up to take the test in about a week or two, but you’ll have to study for it. How does that make you feel?”

TJ scrunched his nose a little and said, “I don’t know.”

I know that “I don’t know.” It’s usually a sign of nerves. So I told him to just look through the rest of his schedule, and we can talk about it later.

The next day, I asked TJ how he was feeling about the whole Driver’s Ed thing.  Again, I got an “I don’t know.” So I suggested we go to the DMV web page and check out their informational videos about driving.

He sat through about half of the video when he said, “Can I stop now?”

Inside, I’m thinking that our planning time is running out. If he is going to take the class in 3 weeks, he needs to take his permit exam in 2 weeks, which means he has to start studying.

But not today. I gave him one more day to think things through.

Finally, the next day, I sat down with TJ. Time to get serious.

“TJ, I know you’re feeling a little nervous about driving. Are you feeling rushed to get your permit?”

“Yes.”

“Would you like to drop the class this semester, and take your time getting your permit? We can try to get the class another time. Even next year, if you’re not ready yet. It’s OK. And it’s up to you.”

With that, he seemed instantly lighter. He thought for a second, then said to me, “I think I’d like to wait.”

And as soon as I said OK, he breathed out deeply and said, “Boy do I feel better!” And then, that smile.

My TJ is on his own schedule. He always has been. He learned to ride his bike long after his little brother did. He didn’t feel comfortable walking home from school alone until late in his freshman year. And the first time he saw the dentist without me was yesterday.

So even though he is already 16, and many of his peers have their driver’s license, my TJ will wait. He will take his sweet time until it feels right for him.

And that’s a-OK by me.

And now, he can’t wait for school to start.

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