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When My Autistic Son Reminded Me That I Need to 'Practice What I Preach'

Editor's Note

This story has been published with permission from the author’s son.

“Practice what you preach” is how the old adage goes — but I’m here to tell you that sometimes I’m a much better “preacher” than I am a “practicer.” I read an article today that I should have read yesterday before I really pissed my kid off. The article was titled “Are Your Dreams for Your Autistic Child Serving You or Them?” I often preach on my Facebook page, on my blog, and to anyone who will listen about this very topic, trying to remind all of us — myself included — to make sure you aren’t putting your wants, your needs, and your dreams on your kid. Yeah, of course we probably all want our kids to be happy, but how “happy” looks to you may not be how “happy” looks to your child, and that, my friends, is where we get lost.

We may get tangled up in the weeds of what our neurotypical minds believe our autistic kids’ dreams should look like, but our vision may not only look different, it likely also is different. After all, our children are autistic, and we are not. Look, I’ve been at this parenting thing for almost 24 years and this “parenting an autistic child” thing for over 20 years and yeah, I have dreams for all three of my kids, but expecting their dreams to look like the happy ending I’ve created in my mind is not only wrong, it’s a disservice to them. I may subconsciously — OK, fine, sometimes consciously — be pushing a happy ending to my idea of their story, not theirs.

Many of the dreams we have for our kids may follow a “typical” timeline: go to school, graduate from school, go to college or trade school, find meaningful employment, find a partner, settle down, have a family, and be happy. It may be most parents’ dreams for their kids. Not all kids want our dreams or to follow our timelines, though.

My “preaching” lacked “practice” yesterday while chatting with my 20-year-old autistic son in the car. Last January, at the age of 19, three years past the legal driving age in our state, Ryan finally decided to get his driver’s permit. “His time, his way,” I wrote at the time. Ryan has practiced driving three times since then and did great, but once he found out about the mandatory 65 hours of driving required to take his actual driver’s test, he lost all interest. I tried to explain that even if he’s good at driving, he has to practice and become experienced and safe as it’s a big — life-or-death kind of big — responsibility getting behind the wheel of a car. He didn’t want to hear any of it, so I stopped “preaching.” Then yesterday, knowing his permit expires in a week, I suggested he start looking over the driver’s application and take the test again. After I suggested it three times, he covered his ears. When I brought it up the fourth time, he yelled, “I don’t care if I ever drive, so why do you?”

Of course, I gave him loads of reasons why I think it’s important, why I wanted a license, and why I needed a license. It was my dream and my reasons, not his. And you know what he said to me? “You will never understand.”

He’s right — I will never understand because I’m not autistic, but mostly because I’m not him. However, just because I don’t understand doesn’t mean I can’t respect the choices my son makes for his life when it comes to his dreams.

So yeah, here I am acting as your “preacher” again, but after that moment yesterday, I’m going to try really hard to remember that words are just words when you don’t practice what you preach. From here on out, I’m going to “preach less” and “practice more” — for your sake and for my sake, but mostly for my son’s sake.

Image via contributor.

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