Oct 01, 2012 1 Share

Learning to Fly

Teenage boy riding escalator down to subway station.
Photo by Julie van der Poel

First published September 26, 2011.

I’m that mom. You know the type: the ones that make that sucking sound at the sight of a toddler toddling? The type whose reaction to a boo-boo causes the child more distress than the actual boo-boo? So having a 16-year-old in need of some practice with “independent” living skills has been a bit of a stretch for me. Through much knuckle biting on my part, I have learned to stand back and watch as my son scrambles up from a half-eaten breakfast to quickly brush his teeth while the school bus (thankfully) waits patiently. It only took four times of me suggesting he set his alarm 10 minutes earlier before he was actually ready when the bus arrived.

This independent living stuff is a dual track learning curve. Not only does my son need to learn the skills I’m trying so hard to impart to him, but I need to learn to let him make use of these skills.

My son participated in a fabulous 2-week summer camp at the Smithsonian Institution this year. It was an all access multi-media camp for high school students with a variety of disabilities. My son was the only participant that traveled to and from the museum independently. He took the Metro, which required one train change and a scooter ride to the Metro station from home. The first two days of camp, I went along with him. On the second day, I tried to let him lead, and internally made that sucking sound when he went to the wrong side of the platform. And then he headed towards the wrong station exit. I was nervous. I asked him if he wanted me to travel with him one more day. What he said to me affected me in the same way as did his first spoken word. He said, “How will you know I can do it, unless you let me try?”


Every day he traveled to and from the camp without incident. He called when he was entering the metro station, and called when he arrived at his destination each way. Some days he would call to say he was going to another museum after camp let out. He never forgot to call, so I never had to worry. (I was on worry alert. I knew exactly when to start worrying if the phone didn’t ring, but it always did.)

The last day of camp I got a call five minutes after he called to say he was leaving camp. His fare card was low, and he couldn’t get through the turnstile. I tried talking him through adding money to his card over the phone. It didn’t work. He was overly frustrated and I couldn’t figure out how to work a machine I couldn’t see. Finally, I told him he would have to hang up, and ask a Metro employee in the station to help him. And do you know what? Within five minutes I received a call that all was fine and he was on his way home.

I’ve found that the more independence he discovers, the more he wants. And that is a very good thing indeed. As for me, I’ve gotten quite good and internalizing that sucking sound.

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I'm that mom too!

Oh my goodness.  We are the same.   My son on the spectrum has started High School and all that goes with it.   I have had to leave him alone at home.   I've had to let himself into the house alone and now we are starting travel training on the city bus.   I never thought this would all come so soon!