In spite of the fact that my twins are chronologically “equal” in age, Max has always been far ahead of Sarah in terms of social, academic and emotional development. Although Max has ADHD, his faster-than-average verbal development helped us to see early on that Sarah was lagging far behind. Thanks to this contrast with her twin brother, Henry and I got Sarah tested at 12 months old, and as a result, she was diagnosed on the autistic spectrum unusually early for babies born 23 years ago.
Max began travelling alone to school and to his friends’ homes at age 11. Sarah went to a special school on a yellow bus that picked her up and dropped her off right in front of our apartment building all the way through high school. Sarah didn’t even HAVE any real friends till high school. Henry and I finally (nervously) allowed our daughter the freedom to walk and take the bus to her friends’ apartments at age 13 or 14. During her childhood, Sarah was often insanely jealous of her brother: “Why can’t I go to a friend’s house like Max? When can I have sleep overs?” Answering her was heartbreaking.
Growing older, she asked: “How come Max can take the subway and I can’t?” Here we relied on the sexist answer. “He’s a young man and he’s much bigger and stronger than you. No one will mess with him, but you’re a pretty young girl….”
The truth was much more complicated. I worried Sarah might push the wrong person in order to get onto a crowded train, or perhaps take a seat from an elderly person who needed it. Or maybe some crazy person would engage her, realize her vulnerability, grab her purse, or God forbid, throw her onto the tracks…. At 16, Henry and I finally allowed her to travel on subways with older male friends. At last, at age 19, when she transferred to Pace University, Sarah began taking the subway everywhere on her own. She was so thrilled with this overdue freedom that she preferred to carry a heavy suitcase on the train, instead of letting us drive her to her dorm after vacation or when the weather was bitter cold.
Max graduated from college in 4 years with the class of ’13. He sort of lives with us, and sort of doesn’t. By that I mean, he spends most nights at his girlfriend’s house in Brooklyn (except for 1 or 2 nights when she’s here). He also spends time at a friend’s house in Los Angeles, looking for work. Floating in and out of our apartment, Max showers, changes his clothes, does his laundry and devours enough pretzels, cheese and Coke Zero to feed a battalion. In the last year or so, I have insisted that Max refill his own prescriptions, set his own alarm and carry his own key (with limited success).
What I still haven’t done is totally let go. I still make my 23 year old son’s appointments with the dentist, cardiologist and internist. I’m afraid he’ll forget and neglect these routine but necessary visits. In the case of the cardiologist, it’s crucial to monitor Max’s heart every six months, because he had open heart surgery to repair his mitral valve at age 3. There’s been some leakage over the years and if it worsens any further, he will need another surgery—a fact that’s he’s too frightened to focus on (understandably). But when it comes to minor health complaints (real and imagined), Max calls the dermatologist, orthopedist and urologist and makes his own appointments. I know he’s worried and therefore motivated to make the call and stay on hold.
Sarah expects to graduate from college this May after 5 long years, including summers. More than once my daughter has asked: “Why did Max graduate in 4 years and I’m doing it in 5 years?”
“You had to do some remedial at work at Landmark, and then you lost a few credits when you transferred.” I explain. “Max started college with advanced placement credits; he didn’t transfer and his school had fewer core requirements than Pace.” The truth is that it’s a miracle Sarah made it to college at all. Not only will Sarah graduate, she has just been invited to join an honor society for students with a GPA of 3.5 or higher. Henry and I couldn’t be more proud and keep telling her that whenever she worries about Max being “ahead” of her.
Living at home and commuting to school, Sarah isn’t home much either. Like Max, my daughter can sleep at her boyfriend’s house or stay out till 3 AM with friends at a late movie, as long as she texts me in advance. Of course, I still worry about her more than I worry about my son. Sarah has accomplished an incredible amount in her 23 years, yet she is vulnerable, still lacking in many simple life skills. For example, she’s afraid to turn on the oven! I know she’ll learn because she wants so badly to be independent, but even so….
As for doctor appointments, I make all of them for Sarah. She is not comfortable dealing with menu options and talking to the receptionist herself. However, Sarah does refill (and always remembers to take) all of her medications without any help or reminders from me. In this one area, she is actually ahead of her brother. Like Max, Sarah goes to all of her doctors on her own (except for the first visit where I fill out the paperwork and introduce her).
I’m trying hard to believe what the late Dr. Stanley Greenspan (a leading child psychiatrist) once said: “Does it matter if your child learns to write script at age 9 or at age 11? Once she learns it, no one will care when she mastered it.” (Nowadays it probably doesn’t matter if your child EVER learns script, since nearly every written communication is typed). But his point was that life isn’t a race. If Sarah learns more slowly and takes longer to become independent, so what? Raising a child on the autistic spectrum is a marathon, not a sprint. To a lesser extent, the same is true for a child with ADHD. It just takes longer for special needs kids to grow up, and parents have to be patient and work harder. Easier said than done!
The media would have us believe that many parents of 20-somethings are “helicopter parents,” who have hovered and overprotected our kids to their detriment. How many of those journalists have special needs kids? On Google I found one article for 18 year olds and college-bound kids to guide them in making independent health care decisions. Of course, the article notes, confidentiality is tricky if the young adult is covered by the parents’ insurance, which these days can be up till age 26.
Perhaps the most depressing article discussed the disturbing fact that 36% of Americans 18 to 31 years old are still living with their parents. That’s the highest level ever recorded! According to Time Magazine, that statistic means approximately 25 million U.S. adults are still in the nest with Mom and Dad. So what’s causing more Americans than ever before to live in a state of “perpetual adolescence?”
It seems financial independence has become increasingly difficult to achieve for a whole host of reasons: an all-time record of $1.08 trillion in student debt, an 11.5% delinquency rate on these student loans, and the fact that our young people are struggling to find employment. In 2013, only 43% of those in the 18-29 year-old age bracket had a full-time job. Even if a young adult is able to find a job, that doesn’t mean he/she will earn enough to survive independently. The quality of jobs in our country continues to worsen and so do wages.
No wonder so many young people remain in the family nest. Letting go seems to be a long, drawn out affair, no matter how much parents and kids yearn for the day that we can all live truly independent lives.