My Daughter With Autism Helps Me Understand My Son’s Leaving

This summer, a friend asked if Erin understood that her brother was leaving for college. Erin, who has autism, is the oldest of our four children. She’s grown accustomed to the comings and goings of her three brothers. COVID conditioned us to endure long absences, but this has thrown us both for a loop.

mom and son - Connor
Author with son. (Eileen Flood O’Connor)

Raising a child with autism requires a fair amount of explaining and interpreting the world. When Erin was younger, we had a book called Point to Happy, which connected emotion with experience. In my efforts to prep her for the details of this milestone, I feel like an unreliable narrator. I know she senses my unease and, at times, is unsure who’s leading me through this transition. 

Erin taught herself to read by memorizing the shape and sounds of letters and then words. In much the same way, she recalls the answers to certain questions; her address, and the name of her town. When asked where Will is going to school, she knows what to say and recites the answer repeatedly.

Does my daughter understand that her brother is leaving home?

I don’t know if she understands, but the repetition helps. Eventually, it just becomes what it is. I think it helps both of us as I often join her in this exercise to make what sounds new and different just part of the norm. Will is leaving, which is great but, in some ways, hard. And his older sister is staying, which is also great but in other ways hard. 

We gather the linens, the laundry bin, and the socks. So many socks. The whole thing is nothing short of amazing. The little boy who was swinging upside down in the park four minutes ago can now make his bed, sort his clothes, and dress. As hard as it is to see him leave home, I am grateful he can go. Point to happy. Point to sad. Point to anxious.  

My son is leaving, and it feels wrong to feel anything but joy

With all that’s going on in the world and the many challenges I see Erin face just getting through her day, it seems small-minded to allow anything but joy to enter this picture. I am not sending my son off to war. Many riches bless us: food, shelter, clothing, and a country, when not at odds with itself, is largely at peace. 

But even so, change is hard, and leave-taking involves risk. We’re reminded every day even in the best of times and the most ideal of conditions, a safe return is not guaranteed. In my freshman year of college, a close friend’s mom got that call just a few days after Thanksgiving, just a stone’s throw to Christmas. A slick road. A car “failed to negotiate” a turn. 

I know this is not the norm, this was an exception. Yet, exceptional things happen every day. Often exceptionally beautiful — which Erin never fails to point out. Sunshine is cause for celebration and must not be overlooked.  

My daughter forces me to focus on what I might have missed

This morning’s sky, for the first time in a while, was gray. “Where is the sun hiding?” Erin asked, looking out her bedroom window. It’s behind the clouds today, but it’s out there. From the moment she was born, Erin has forced me to hold her close, think about, study, and see what I might have missed. 

Erin attends a local life and job skills training program. When not feeling “frustrated” or “disappointed” by a change in schedule, she is mostly happy. She taught me much about life, love, acceptance, and perseverance. Against all odds, she learned to walk, talk, and connect with the world around her. Sometimes I think she understands and relates better than anyone I’ve ever known — to people, to me, to her brother, her first friend, playmate, and protector.

Every night Erin watches the same movie: Homeward Bound, The Incredible Journey, the story of three beloved pets who get separated from their family. Lost in the Oregon wilderness, they face tremendous obstacles, a bobcat, an icy mountain range, and a battering storm, but every night they find their way back home. Erin delights in the miracle of their return, and though I’ve seen it play out two hundred times, I can’t help but applaud alongside her.  

She is full of joy, and every step of the way reminds me to be joyful, to see that she and her brother are moving in the direction of life unfolding uniquely for them, to appreciate that they are working hard to meet new and formidable challenges, to have faith that whether it’s the end of the day or the end of a semester, they will find their way back home – and always, to celebrate that return, preferably with applause.

More Great Reading:

I’ve Never Been More Aware That I Have a Child With Autism

My Son Has Autism and I’ll Take Care of Him for the Rest of His Life

About Eileen FloodOConnor

Eileen Flood O'Connor is a writer and mother of four, the oldest of whom has an autism spectrum disorder. She writes often about parenting and the joys and challenges of raising a special needs child alongside three 'lively' boys. Find her at Eileen Flood O'Connor

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