If you were to have asked me in my twenties about life skills, I probably would have answered that they were just common sense. I would probably use words like obvious, instinctual, and innate. If I didn't know something, I could just figure it out. Besides cooking (I'm a terrible cook), I could totally live on my own at eighteen (I didn't, I know, not really, but I could have). Microwaves were invented, and I went to college. I had Domino's on speed dial (pre-cellphone era); I knew how to do laundry, study, and keep myself groomed. Life skills. Easy-peasy.
Twenty(ish) years and three kids later, I realize that life skills are not obvious or innate for everybody. I didn't know what autism was, really, back in my twenties, back when I was first “adulting”. I had never heard of sensory integration or executive functioning. While all kids, especially teens, and especially boys struggle to see the importance of clean clothes and toothpaste, for some kids it just doesn’t occur to them that they smell bad or have food in their teeth. Beyond that, unless they are reminded, they won't change clothes, deodorize, or brush their teeth. It's frustrating, to say the least, and heart breaking at times. One day Tommy came home from high school with macaroni and cheese in his eyebrows. A phone call to his case manager at school ensured it wouldn't happen again, but things like that happen all the time. He needs to be told to use a napkin, and to check the mirror before he leaves the restroom.
Tommy needs reminders for Every. Single. Thing. I'm not even exaggerating. He wakes up on his own, and goes on Wikipedia to get evidence to convince me the multiverse is reality on his own, but everything else needs prompting. Did you shower? Did you use soap? Did you change your clothes? Did you brush your teeth? Did you remember the toothpaste? It goes on and on and on. I'm even needing to smell him sometimes because the reply is often as automatic as the question. Yes, yes, and yes. I'm like, “Really? Come closer! No, you didn't!” So, while most kids will realize eventually that it's important to be clean, Tommy just doesn't, and probably won't. A lot of kids with autism don't and won't grow out of the stage of teenage unsanitariness. It just won't occur to them that it's necessary. Tommy won't figure out how to budget, meal plan, or organize himself by himself. He needs a little extra help, and sometimes (at this stage of life) that help needs to come from someone other than his family members. I call it launching him, this preparation for independence that needs to happen without the immediate safety net of his people always directing and guiding him. Forward progress!
So, Tommy had an evaluation week at the Woodrow Wilson Workforce center a few months ago. It went very well, and he was recommended for the first part of his training to be the Life Skills program, which is nine weeks long. We left yesterday and dropped him off (gasp)! He is living in a dorm, he is having to live with someone, and share a bathroom with eight other boys. I'm excited and terrified, again. I wasn't quite as emotional dropping him off this time, but it is definitely unsettling for me--for all of us in this family. Katie cried, and Mark was really quiet on the ride back home. It's what we want for Tommy, and yet it's hard to let go. Parenting is kind of like signing up to have your heart broken a little at a time, and then to have it put back together, but it's just not ever the same. It's a beautiful and terrible thing.
The biggest worry Tommy had, mind you, was his roommate. “What if he is not like me at all… What if he is an atheist sports fanatic or something?”
Bless him. I'm happy to report that the roommate was not an atheist sports fanatic, and, indeed, was quite a bit like Tommy. They both like DC comics, Gotham, and conspiracy theories. The roommate is writing a book about the presidents’ secrets. All the presidents. All the secrets. He is very organized. I was impressed. Tommy and he fell into a very easy dialogue (and debate) about aliens, Area Fifty-One, and the “fake” lunar landing. I left feeling good, a little less worried, because I was nervous about the room-mate possibilities, as well. Part of life skills is social skills, and that is always a struggle for Tommy.
So, all in all, it's going to be an interesting nine weeks for this family! One week without Tommy was fine, but nine weeks?! I'm a bit beside myself. It's already so quiet. I didn't wake up to hearing him pacing around the house (laps, inside, every morning, with a very heavy heel). I didn't have to answer questions about him being the best swordsman in a multi-dimensional universe, scarf wearing fraternities in Brazil, or parallel Star Wars outcomes and theories, ad nauseum. My brain won't know how to think without all that stimulation, I'm afraid. But, I'll keep you posted!
Keep calm! Tommy is launching! And parent on!