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When My Autistic Son Graduated From High School

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Editor's Note

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


I knew my son T.J.’s high school senior spring was going to be busy. But honestly, I had no idea how busy it would really be.

T.J. is autistic. And for most high school seniors, spring is a time of nervous energy as they prepare for the closing of one big chapter of life and prepare for the next big chapter of life.

I remember my senior spring — the anticipation of starting college and leaving behind the only world I knew was often overwhelming.

That alone is a challenge for my guy. Times of emotional upheaval have proven to be challenging in the past, overwhelming his entire body at times.

So now imagine throwing in an interview for entrance into a local independent living program.

And turning 18.

And going to court with us regarding guardianship, because he is turning 18.

And filling out stacks of paperwork and interviews for financing for adult services.

And a driving evaluation determining if it’s safe for him to be a driver.

And preparing for final exams and graduation.

I tell you, I’m overwhelmed just looking at the list. And I lived it.

In the early spring, knowing all the different tasks that lay before us, we decided to approach each one with as much lighthearted calm as we could. T.J. is like a sponge and readily absorbs any tension around him. We were determined to control this aspect of our situation as best we could, knowing that if we showed him we were OK with everything happening, our boy would take our lead.

Our first task was to ask T.J. if he wanted to stay in high school until he was 21. Under the law he is entitled to, and many kids with autism do.

“No way! My class is graduating! I want to graduate, too!”

So now, knowing how important this graduation was to him, the rest of our planning was pretty much laid out for us. Paperwork and interview dates were scheduled with our local social services agency to secure financing for adult services. I felt the same way I did when he was first diagnosed with autism, faced with a new world of options and lingo.

A huge thanks to our local organization, The Howard Center, who answered our many questions and helped us understand this new process of services available to adults with autism in Vermont. Every call got returned, every question got answered (sometimes more than once, I was that overwhelmed), and every tear of mine was met with understanding from them. I am so grateful.

Next, T.J. was turning 18. He would be a legal adult. But while his is physically 18 years old, he is much younger than that in some aspects. Medical decisions for him are made under our guidance. He doesn’t make his own doctor appointments or schedule his own prescription refills. Finances remain a muddled mystery to him. These are things we have dabbled with together in teaching him, but his skills are nowhere near where they need to be for complete independence.

Something to work towards, we all decide together.

So for now, T.J., Sean my husband, and I all decide together to pursue voluntary guardianship. T.J. can revoke it himself at any time. We have always been a team regarding big decisions, and this one is no different.

He was great in court. He told me that he learned how not to talk to a judge by watching “The Simpsons.” I didn’t know why he had his little grin on court day, but now I know.

So the next thing to tackle was driving. He was enrolled in Driver’s Ed in the fall and took an incomplete in the class after we met with the instructor, who was concerned whether or not T.J. had the ability to process all the information one needs to properly be a safe driver.

We met with an Occupational Therapist who evaluates individuals with disabilities for driving. During his computer driving simulation, after T.J. hit a bicyclist on the computer screen, the writing was pretty much on the wall regarding this one. But I was concerned about the impact of being told to wait a few years to be a driver would have on his mental well-being and self confidence.

We talked about it a lot during the lead up to the driving evaluation, so when we were told he needs to wait a few years to try driving again, he simply said, “It’s OK. It’s just not for me right now. I can find other ways to get around.”

That’s my boy.

Next was his interview for a local independent living program.

T.J. met with a panel of five different people in the organization, and I was surprised when they invited me to the panel interview as well.

Now this one was a huge lesson for me. For some reason, I had my heart set on him getting into this program. Maybe it my nagging need for “normalcy” in terms of next steps: after high school comes college. That’s what was true for me and the world I grew up in. But I should know by now that the universe has a way of everything working out just as it should, and if I am so stuck on an idea of how I think things “should be,” that is the exact time I will be taught a very big lesson on how things really are.

T.J. did a great job in the interview. He happily and willingly answered his questions. A few times he looked to me for answers, and I told him “this is all you, buddy. Answer however you feel is true to your heart.” He did. And his answers showed me pretty quickly that maybe he wasn’t ready for independent living away from home quite yet.

So when I received word that T.J. did not get in to the program, but rather was waitlisted, my heart broke a little. But T.J.’s didn’t. So as I quickly realized how selfish I was being, I stopped feeling sorry for myself and followed my son’s lead.

Together we talked about what our next steps would be. “It’s just a zig zag, mom.” T.J. told me. A “zig zag” is how we have described unexpected curve balls that fall into our laps. It’s not a worse or better situation we find ourselves in — it is just an unexpected one. So OK. Time for plan B. And the Universe would once again show me that plan B really was plan A all along.

T.J. was working at TJMaxx through the high school’s employment program. They notified us that they wanted to hire T.J. after graduation for part time work. Our plan for T.J.’s next steps was starting to take shape.

T.J. was struggling with his academics in high school. The higher his grade level, the more challenges he faced taking tests and organizing his work. We decided together that a full college schedule would be too much for T.J. to deal with on top of all of his other life transitions, and decided on looking in to an art class and an “introduction to college” class at the local community college. So much less pressure for our boy, a great opportunity for learning about life in a college environment, and a great opportunity for success and self confidence as he enters adulthood. He will live at home and work with a helper to learn how to use public transportation to get him between home, and work, and college.

Whew! His next year is suddenly set! And seeing how excited and positive he is about it reassures me that everything is just as it should be. We will re-apply to the independent living program in a year, or maybe two… who knows? Our next steps will come to us as we go along.

So now the path was cleared for preparing for T.J.’s high school graduation. He just had to get through his final exams first.

T.J. worked hard, and it was a lot of work for him. He showed signs of stress, but in his determination to graduate with his class he calmed himself down, and focused on his continued hard work.

As exam week approached, and as T.J.’s exam schedule got sorted out, he happily reported that aside from in class projects and a couple of tests to be taken in class, his only exam was the first day. He had the rest of the week off.

His dedication and hard work paid off. He beamed, he was so proud.

So did I.

Finally, it was the day of his graduation rehearsal. He did not have a helper available to go with him, so I decided I would be a fly on the wall and sit in the back of the rehearsal, gathering the same information that T.J. was getting, and filling in any blanks for him if he missed anything.

He found his seat. He followed the instructions for the procession. Then, all of a sudden, I realized they were calling everyone across the stage by name, to ensure proper pronunciation.

I watched with my jaw dropped as I saw so many kids I knew crossing that stage. Kids from T.J.’s kindergarten. Kids from the fourth grade play. Kids from his “lunch bunch” with his speech therapist. Kids who were friends with Peter and always had a fondness for Peter’s older brother. Kids whose parents were my friends. Kids we have known forever.

Kids who all have touched our lives in one way or another over the years. Kids who are woven into the story of T.J.’s growth and success and struggles and triumphs and challenges over all the years he has been in school.

Whether they knew it or not. They were all a part of his getting here.

When they called “Thomas James Jordan,” my sweet boy smiled like I have never seen. And these kids, forever a part of T.J.’s story, cheered.

T.J. threw his hands up in the air with double V for victory. I have never seen him stand so tall, smile so wide, and walk with such confidence as he did crossing that stage.

And suddenly, with my hands covering my mouth in utter surprise, I cried. The tears just poured.

T.J. and Peter’s friend, and fellow graduate, Meredith, saw me and ran over to me with arms outstretched for a hug. She has always had a soft spot for T.J., and has always been one of his biggest supporters. She is a lovely girl, and anyone who loves my T.J. like that is my friend for life.

She wrapped me up a huge hug and said, “Your boy is graduating! Look at him! He did it!”

I nodded and cried, completely unable to say a word.

He did it. After all his years of hard work, and after all our years of hard work as a family, he did it.

Remember, folks, this was just rehearsal. Graduation was the next day.

The next morning, with out of town family gathering and the hubbub of activity that goes along with it, T.J. confidently and calmly prepared himself for his day. He was so patient as his little cousins scampered around and got ready. He put on his cap and gown, with his blue and gold tassel, and stood taller than I have ever seen him stand. He radiated confidence as he said, “See you guys soon!” and walked himself into the school where the seniors were meeting for the procession.

I was a ball of excited energy as we, the audience, gathered in the ice rink where the ceremony was taking place. We got great seats where I would be able to see the graduates after they got their diplomas and walked back to their seats.

When they called his name, this time for real, I didn’t cry. I cheered. Loud and proud, with so many of his classmates and teachers doing the same. He gave us all the double V for victory again, with an even bigger smile than he did at rehearsal, and then, in his excitement, he jumped off the ramp off the stage with his arms flung in the air in complete joy.

It was one of the most precious moments of my life.

T.J. had his sideways grin on his face as he walked up the aisle back to his seat. It got bigger when he saw his dad taking video of him. And then he saw me, and reached out his arms. I of course was only too happy to jump out of my chair and hug my boy. My grown, brave, smart, resilient, proud, graduating boy.

It was a perfect day with family, friends, food, and fun. It was T.J.’s day, and he was only as social as he wanted to be, making appearances as he wanted and having alone time as he needed. He was happy.

So were we.

After such a busy spring, filled with challenging decisions, new situations, a bunch of “nos” and a bunch of “yeses,” a perfect graduation day was just the thing to close out his high school career.

And this senior spring taught us all that if we take each challenge and each decision as a team, following T.J.’s lead as he follows his heart, with some parent pushes as necessary, our amazing autistic boy will find his way.

And he will do just fine.

Originally published: July 22, 2018
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