Dear Parents of Children with Autism,
You are true warriors. You’re the most determined individuals on Earth. You’re tired. You’re probably in need of a shower because you haven’t been able to leave your child’s side for even a few minutes. You may be running around trying to balance work and meeting your other family needs. Yet you’re here, pushing through each day giving your child with autism the world. You only want them to have the very best.
Every day, the thought will cross your mind; as you’re driving or as you try to sleep at night, this thought will not leave your head. The thought of what your child will be like when they are older: the future is coming. Will they have friends? Will they be in college? Will they be able to communicate effectively? Will there be a job out there that they will be able to enjoy and keep? Is independent living an option?
Chances are, it’ll be way different than you imagined it. This is totally OK! There are no road maps for raising a child with autism. Life after high school looks different for every individual. It’s never too early to take this into consideration. My twin brother Daniel has autism and is 27 years old. My parents and I have discussed his future for as long as I can remember. He was nonverbal and struggled with activities of daily living. He could barely get through the days without meltdowns, self injury or elopement. I could see as a child that it was difficult for my parents to take us out in public because of the looks and comments we received. Our lives flew by. Next thing we knew, Daniel and I were graduating from high school. I was heading off to college to study Special Education, our older brother had been attending automotive school, and we were exploring different options for Daniel.
He really enjoys art (and is great at drawing), so our parents enrolled him in a typical secondary art school in our hometown for about a year. My mother would shadow him there at times. The fact that he required accommodations (such as more time to complete assignments and a decrease in his workload) made it difficult for him to continue down that path. From there he was home, attending job training and several interviews at grocery stores, movie theaters and restaurants. These places proceeded to turn him away, as he displayed anxiety and some trouble managing his behavior when he was under stress.
Just as my family started to feel hopeless, we found the perfect opportunity. I had become a Special Education teacher about four-and-a-half years ago. I had a student in my class (who I still teach to this day) whose parents own a pizza chain restaurant in our area, Jets Pizza. I became close to his family and started telling them about Daniel and how he has struggled with his livelihood. I mentioned how sweet and smart he is, but no one would give him a chance. I came to them frustrated, as autistic people are capable of so much if we give them a chance!
Without hesitation, they took him in. They did not feel the need to conduct a job interview. Having their own child with autism, they already understood my brother without even meeting him. Guess what? Daniel has been working for Jets Pizza for almost four years now. The owners and his coworkers have come to be some of his closest friends. He has gained skills such as using the oven, setting up the pizzas, preparing the dough, cutting with a knife and maintaining the cleanliness of the store. When he is experiencing a meltdown, his coworkers know what that looks like and are able to help him step away and work it out.
My parents and I get emotional when we think about what Daniel’s job has meant to him. He absolutely loves working at Jets, and asks to go there on his days off. He is someone who has always preferred to be alone, and now he gets to be loved, social and productive every day. He was a child that could not speak or leave our sight and now he’s working — without his family having to be there. It’s something we thought he might never do. He’s happy.
Parents, it does get easier in little steps at a time. Don’t stop fighting for your child. Keep seeking out resources, or start now if you haven’t considered it. With autism rates on the rise, there are more and more businesses that are willing to hire these amazing kids. Start networking and meeting positive influences; talk to other families in your community. Keep your child’s teachers and school close; you never know what information you can learn. Don’t ever give up hope, because the perfect opportunity can pop up right in front of you. It will be the best feeling for you and your child when he/she feels like an independent and productive adult.