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How Life Has Changed Since My Autistic Son Left for College

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“You’re gonna have a lot of time on your hands.”

“What are you going to do with all your free time?”

These are the lines my friends say in jest now that my son Ryan, who is autistic, is in college and appears to be doing well without me. Like, really well. And 99% of the time, most of my heart takes it in stride and laughs with them. But there is a small part of my heart, the part that belongs to this once scared, anxious, confused little boy who has now grown into an independent, wonderful young man who still owns this piece of my heart’s real estate, that has left me feeling like life is not filled with glorious hours of “me time.” Rather, in some ways, it feels like time has stopped. And I just keep waiting for it to start ticking again.

This is all part of the journey. And like every phase of the journey that we have worked so hard at together, it’s now time for me to stop watching the clock and let him find his own way, in his own time with me occasionally checking the time from a distance. We started on this journey together and there have been difficult and beautiful times just like most mothers and sons, but where our journey differs is that for years, and literally until the day he left for college, I was his timekeeper. I was his voice. I was his advocate. And yes, in many ways I was his enabler. Why keep time, why advocate for myself, why do my own laundry, when Mom is here doing it for me? He had his role and I had mine. And now, just like time, those roles are changing.

From the first moment in the doctor’s office when I said, “something feels different” as my toddler screamed at the doctor’s touch then burrowed himself into me, knowing I was his protector and would do whatever I could to keep him safe, to all the moments of advocacy I have fought for on his behalf, I was there and he was too. The two of us, in sync, together.

And it’s not a coincidence that now he is 75 miles away, it feels like time has stood still, because so much of our lives together did revolve around his time. His need for routine and schedule, which helped him to feel safe and calm, kept me always planning, always on time, always in time. Without my son at home reminding me it’s time to do laundry because none of his five favorite shirts are clean, we can easily go a week without laundry being done here. When there is no one to say, “We need more Cinnamon Toast Crunch,” there is not a great need to run to the grocery store every Tuesday. Routine, schedules, life and time itself have changed.

From haircuts to dentist appointments, from new shoes to new schools, from meltdowns to victories, I was the big hand and he was the little hand, working with precision as the pendulum swayed, keeping a steady, correct pace. We were a team and together we educated, we advocated, we fought, we cried, we laughed and we learned. Together.

And of course, I knew the goal since we heard “autism” was for him to gain independence, for him to manage his own time and for him to one day pull farther away until he could be his own voice, his own advocate. He is doing all of this and I feel as happy as I feel lost. I feel as filled as I feel empty.

So yes, when my friends say, “You have a lot of time on your hands now,” with a teasing smile, I chuckle and agree. But inside my maternal clock is looking for the little hand that was always in sync with the big hand.

I know that time does not stand still for anyone, but for many mothers of kids with disabilities, time is all we have ever focused on. Whether it was fear of the future or guilt from the past, the present is a time we rarely allowed ourselves to embrace. Well here he is and here I am, in the present, learning from our past, looking forward to the future and knowing that time does go on. And the one most overriding emotion I feel in this present moment is pride. This is my son’s time. Not mine. “Our” time has passed. And that’s exactly how it’s supposed to go.

The gears on a clock are what makes that big hand and little hand continue to move, keeping time going with one goal in mind: perpetual motion. My son is moving forward and so am I. Time will keep moving forward and I will find a way to fill my time, while I watch happily as he fills his time with new adventures on his own.

And my goodness, does he deserve it.

Originally published: October 20, 2020
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