I have wrestled all summer with how to qualify the transition we’re in. For Henry this summer has been a perfect blueprint of his future — his plan is to take the rest of his life off. He describes graduation from High School as ‘retirement’. He’s told teachers, friends, disinterested passers-by, and members of the media that his next step would be ‘staying home and playing games’. Between graduation and moving house there was a good deal of ‘staying home and playing games’.  

I remember when he was an infant and I was warned that if I didn’t move from my weak breast milk to formula he would be diagnosed with ‘failure to thrive’. That is a gut punch of a phrase for a new mommy. I don’t know what the medical establishment means by it, but what it sounded like, smelled like, tasted like and felt like to me was: YOU are failing to thrive your baby.

This transition has felt like the adult equivalent to ‘failure to thrive’. I leave him in the morning with enough food for the day and text him every hour. He rarely texts back. I developed an infected tear duct in my left eye the week of his graduation. Two weeks later when we closed on our house it moved to the right eye. Did I mention we also bought a house?

In order to get Henry to do something, anything, I created a daily to-do list of hygiene behaviors, meal plans, and one chore — vacuuming, collecting the garbage, wiping down the bathrooms.  Everything had a check box. If I forget the daily print out, I come home to him in bed at 4:30 p.m. in the same clothes as the night before.  He gets up and has breakfast at dinner time.  If I leave the daily print out, I come home to a clean and fresh smelling young man who has proudly accomplished all his chores by 10a.m. so he can get back to ‘staying home and playing games’. 

While for me this feels like failure to thrive, I started wondering if for Henry this isn’t as dire a situation. Maybe the push to stay home and play games wasn’t so much a regression, a failure to thrive, but a true break. He’s been supervised on a 1 - 4 ratio for much of his life. His days were scheduled to the minute. What if he just wanted a break? My sister with her two adult children and my friend with her four, described their kids’ responses to graduation as a similar experience of waywardness, confusion and need for a break —  though the behaviors were slightly more sophisticated and involved tattoos, piercings, job quitting or living in a hammock in the back yard. 

Towards the end of August, I spoke with him in a meeting on our back porch. “Henry, most people who graduate take a break for the summer.  They back-pack in Europe. They go on a camping trip. They live at the beach and do odd jobs.  Summer is ending soon and you’ll need to get started on your work life now that your school life has ended.”

Changing the story from my failure to launch my son into thriving to he’s on the autistic equivalent to backpacking in Europe has at least caused my eye infections to clear up. His graduation is about him and about me — and we have two different stories about it. Finding the story that serves us both best is the challenge and the reward.