A special note from The Write Reflection: April is Autism Awareness Month. In an effort to spread awareness about autism, The Write Reflection will feature guest bloggers this month on the subject of autism. The second post in our series is written by Jean Pace, with additional commentary by her son, Scott.
"There’s one department at this university that doesn’t make mistakes,” the Dean said. “The Admissions Department.”
Words meant to reassure, but I still felt terriﬁed. From the nosebleed seats of the college auditorium, the parents attending June Family Orientation Day peered at the young adults in the ﬂoor seats. For some reason, they were batting around dozens of blue and white balloons, each of us trying to locate our kid amidst the balloons.
The cheerful students working the event had separated parents from progeny only a few minutes after we exited our cars. My objective for the past 18 years had been to get my son Scott, who is autistic, through high school and into college. The last year had been a mania of ticking boxes: campus visits, SATs, college applications, senior year academics and activities, and concluding with High School Graduation: check. Now we were at our ﬁrst incoming-freshman event. A new era.
The Dean was friendly, but ﬁrm. “Without your hard work, your children wouldn’t be here. I have nothing against helicopter parents” Relief shivered through our section. “Helicopter parents care. What I want to warn you about is lawnmower parenting. That’s when you mow down everything in your kid’s path. You’re going to have to step back and let them ﬁgure things out for themselves.”
I saw the parents around me nodding along. I started to sweat. Step back? That’s not how we got here. If asked to describe my parenting style when it came to interacting with my son’s schools and teachers, I’d call it proactive, but I’ve never really minded the term helicopter, either. Every September, second week of school, I’d email all my son’s teachers, saying hi and urging them to contact me if there were any questions or issues. I went to every parent night and teacher conference, kept lines of communication open, reviewed every progress report, made appointments for extra help sessions after school when needed. When bigger problems arose, I emailed and phoned and conferenced and did everything I could to keep things from snowballing.
It was a warm day. They walked us all over the grassy campus, where I couldn’t help but see a lawnmower or two. I hoped I wasn’t being too much of a lawnmower as I said to yet another staff member, “Hi, I’m excited that my son is going here. He’s autistic, so I have a few questions about support services…and could I get a business card so I can contact you if I think of more questions later?” The university has an impressive array of help and support services. The consistent message, delivered by everyone I talked to: while there’s a lot of help available, the students have to understand that they need help and ask for it. The earlier the better.
“How’d it go?” I asked as we drove home. “Good,” Scott said.
“What’d you do?”
“We had fun throwing balloons inside the auditorium.”
Panic! Was it possible to attach a lawnmower to a helicopter?
Getting ready for September kept us busy. I drove Scott to his campus job interview. Set up an intake appointment for him at the Center for Access and Success, which helps autistic students manage campus life. Took him to the bank to set up a checking account and debit card. Bought him some new clothes. And then, in practically no time at all, we were moving him into the dorm and leaving him there.
I called or emailed Scott every couple of days for the ﬁrst week. In the second week, he called me, upset: he’d had a course scheduling problem that left him a week behind in one of his classes. I made a list of people to contact (Scott’s adviser, director of the Center for Access and Success, etc.), and hit the Compose Message button. Then I took a breath and pressed Cancel, instead. I ended up sending a single email, to Scott, recommending a couple of actions to take and wishing him luck as he dealt with the problem on his own. Which he did. The helicopter stayed on the landing pad; the lawnmower, in the shed. I’ve set myself at the edge of the lawn. Close enough to call for help, and whacking weeds as needed.
Editor's Note: The following is a note from Scott, on his successes and struggles during his first year of college:
Hi, I am Scott Whiting.
I currently go to UMass Dartmouth for college. As a person with autism, I do have a little more difﬁculty with adjusting to college life than others. I have had experiences with sleeping in dorms before, in a summer music program, so I wasn’t as worried about living away from home.
In college, I have been on my own for the longest time without my family. For the classes I take, I always see Music Theory as the most difﬁcult one. I have to put in more time to study for all classes and organize my schedule. Aside from that, my social life has improved. I spend more time with friends, go shopping with them, go to concerts with them, I am even in my ﬁrst relationship with a fellow autistic friend.
College is making my life busy, and yet, improving it. When it comes to a job, my parents and I were trying to get one for the summer, but found no success. Then I applied for a job on campus and was accepted by the Claire T. Carney Library. I clear ﬂoors, do head counts, and check book drops. I quickly got used to the job and enjoyed it, as it could be both work and fun for me.
I visit the Center for Access and Success, which helps disabled people like me to organize my schedule and class difﬁculties. I have been able to support myself very well, even through stressful times, and I hope to do so for the next three years at UMass Dartmouth. I, an autistic person, have been able to get through my ﬁrst year of college.
_____________________________________________________________About the Author
Jean Pace is the author of the blog jeanSpace: ﬂuttering about the empty nest.