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Trying to Land the Helicopter as a Parent to a Child With Autism

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My kids tell me I worry “too much.” My husband knows I worry “too much” and my friends tell me not to worry “too much.” I also imagine my son’s teachers, guidance counselors and doctors having a voodoo doll of me they stick with pins when I worry “too much,” but, how do I know what is “too much?” Is there some secret formula for worrying the right amount? If so, everyone should know I got a D in high school chemistry, so even if you know the formula and share it with me, chances are I will still blow something up.

Yes, I know we are the generation of helicopter mothers. We circle around hovering just over the tops of our kids’ heads, keeping an eye out for incomplete homework, school yard bullies and the latest apps to make sure our kids are safe and happy. And I know that as a parent, there comes a time when we are supposed to either land the damn helicopter in some field and open a bottle of wine and relax. Or at the very least, circle around our kids’ heads with less frequency and at a significantly higher elevation. But when your child has an autism diagnosis, or any kind of different ability, it’s hard to “helicopter” from a distance.

I have tried. Oh believe me, I have tried.

There have been times when I felt safe landing my helicopter in that grassy field with a bottle of cabernet and not a care in the world. Just as I’m ready to take a sip, I receive that call, that email or that text reminding me, first of all, to turn my freaking phone off when I’m sipping wine, and second, there is no time for landing (and certainly no time for wine). “Ryan didn’t turn in his paper that was due three days ago.” “Ryan spent the entire time at recess by the door waiting to go back inside.” “The boys on the bus are taking Ryan’s Angry Birds key chains and teasing him.” Worrying “too much” Mom sets down her wine glass, fires up the helicopter and the hovering resumes (as she fights the temptation to drop water balloons from the helicopter on the bus bullies’ heads).

Then there were times when I thought a moment, a situation, an event was going to be “too much,” so I hovered right over his head, only to have him shoot me and my helicopter down with his desire and ability to prove to me that it was not “too much,” so please hover elsewhere. “I can handle it.” “You don’t trust me.” “You worry too much.” And he did, and I didn’t and I do.

I can’t seem to worry or hover just right.

With the recent school year I gassed up the helicopter and the “too much” hovering began. I hovered low, right above my son’s head until I found the “just right” lunch box, the “just right” shoes, and the “just right” gray (not any other color except blue as long as it’s the right shade of blue) Hollister t-shirt, and the “just right” cargo shorts. I then hovered with my son as we picked out the “just right” binders, pencils, pens and notebooks and sent him off to his second year of high school, praying it would be a “just right” kind of year. After only three days of extreme worrying and hovering, he yelled, “You don’t trust me! Please don’t worry too much” so, I landed my helicopter, grabbed a bottle of wine and thought, “OK, he’s got this.”

As I watched him walk down the street to the bus stop, I thought to myself, maybe it’s time to decommission this old, tired, worried helicopter and finally open that wine. Maybe I do worry “too much” and it’s time to relax a little bit. Maybe my hovering days are coming to an end and it’s time to let him handle things on his own.

Then one email from this teacher and one discussion with that teacher and with my guilt ridden heart and red wine stained lips, I gassed up the decommissioned helicopter ready to head out the door, flight jacket in hand and Ryan stopped me: “I’ve got this,” he said. And he did. He admitted to not reading the Econ assignment, he admitted to missing one day of algebra homework and he admitted he was spending too much time gaming. He looked me right in the eye and told me, “I will fix it.” And he did — without the helicopter.

I know that worrying “too much” and hovering “too much” is how we try and keep them safe. We want to be right there to throw down our rescue basket and pick them up when they fall. We want to get them to adulthood with as few scars from childhood as we possibly can, knowing full well that even when we think we might be able to drink more uninterrupted wine, when we think our helicopters are too old to be considered safe to fly, and when we think, “they’ve got this,” we will continue to hover from a distance, with text messages, emails, social media and maybe our own Mama Drones that can fly over them from time to time to see if it’s safe to have that second glass of wine.

Autism may make getting back up on his own a little more difficult without helicopter mom’s rescue basket, but my son has proven time and again he can do it, even when I worry “too much” that he can’t.

“I’ve got this,” he continues to reassure me. I have no doubt you do son, but, I still suck at chemistry and landing helicopters, so chances are, I will always worry and hover a “little” as I continue to annoy you “too much.”

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Originally published: October 16, 2017
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