Graduation And The Lost Payback

There are many pros to having a child with autism.

He never back-talks me. He never wanted the latest expensive toy or video game system. I never had to attempt to show him how to throw a football. Or a baseball. Or a basketball. I never spent a Saturday afternoon on a soccer field. He never gave me that look of disappointment when I couldn’t fix something he’d broken. I never had to teach him how to drive. I never had to worry about him driving. He never stayed out past curfew. He never fell in with the wrong crowd. He didn’t pierce anything or wear baggy pants or strange goth clothing. I never had to buy him $300 tennis shoes. He never took drugs — aside from the ones his neurologist prescribed.

Oh sure, there are cons as well.

I’ve never had a conversation with him. It took f o r e v e r to get him out of pull-ups. If left on his own he’ll put his clothes on backwards. He still requires supervision in the tub. He still requires supervision anywhere. I can’t go out with my wife without first arranging a “sitter.” There was that whole violent, biting, wanting to kill his mother phase. Who’s going to take care of me when I’m old? Who’s going to take care of him when I’m gone?

So yeah, pros and cons.

One of the cons is missing out on all the ceremonies that mark a life. It’s unlikely that Andrew will graduate from college or get married or win the Nobel Prize. But the one thing he was going to do is graduate from high school. And by graduate, I mean he turned 21 in March and so the public school system is no longer responsible for him and so he has to leave the school he’s attending for an adult day program down the road.

But hey, it’s a ceremony and we’ll take it.

This ceremony was important because it was at last going to give me payback on my family and all those times they dragged me across the state and across state lines for some niece or nephew’s wedding. Once they dragged me out in an ice storm. Once they dragged me away from New Comic Book Day. Now it was my turn. And this was my one chance. I don’t hear wedding bells in Andrew’s future. I doubt there’s an Autism Hall of Fame.

The school sends a note in Andrew’s book bag. “Graduation will take place on Thursday, May 17, at 1 p.m.”

Wait. What? Thursday? Who has a graduation on a Thursday? And in the afternoon? I can’t ask my family to drive across the state and across state lines on a Thursday? They’d have to miss work. Wait. I’ll have to miss work. I just started work. I don’t have vacation time. I’ll have to use one of my precious, precious personal days. And if they came up on a Thursday then they’d probably stay Friday and if they stay Friday then they might as well stay the weekend and I don’t need that. I’ve only got one guest bed.

And then it said we could only invite 10 guests. There’s only 2 graduates. Are they holding graduation in a classroom? Even if I wanted to drag my family across the state and across state lines, I wouldn’t have enough room for them along with Laura’s family.

Payback is a bitch. Not getting payback is a bigger one.

So we wound up inviting the only people we knew could swing a Thursday afternoon ceremony — Laura’s mother and sister.

The big day finally arrived. Andrew’s education has been a long and winding road. The past 19 years he has attended three schools at 7 locations all over St. Louis — there was the Jewish Temple at 270 and 40; the place next to West Olive theater; the place behind the Fox Theatre, the place in Webster Groves; two places in O’Fallon and one in St. Peters. Most of them were good, some we weren’t fond of. We applied to get him into a special school but they rejected him because he was too autistic. They still send us requests for money and I smile as I throw them in the trash.

Ten years ago the Center for Autism Education opened in O’Fallon. A year later we applied to get Andrew in. It was a rough time and we were desperate. Despite being too autistic they took him in. It has been a good nine years. One of the pros of having a child with autism is you meet a lot of great people who care about them.

We arrived at the school a half-hour early and Andrew was sitting on the swing. He had that confused, anxious look that one gets when ones parents show up at school. Please don’t have a meltdown. Please don’t have a meltdown. His mother had brought along a nice shirt and pants to change into. Changing shirts just increased his anxiety. We left the pants alone. Please don’t have a meltdown. Please don’t have a meltdown.

We decided to leave him in the care of his teachers, and they got him in his gown. The cap was too small so pins were required. Now I’m going to have a meltdown. Eventually the familiar notes of “Pomp and Circumstance” began and Andrew and Jonathan marched in and took their seats. Given that there were only two people graduating, that meant my son was either Valedictorian or Salutatorian. Doesn’t matter which. I’m so proud.

Neither one was allowed to make a speech — they woulda been short speeches anyhow — so their teachers stood up and said a few words. It was a nice ceremony — nice and brief. Just like I like ’em. The boys were given diplomas and class rings (I had to buy my own class ring, as I recall) and then there was punch and cake for all.

Of course, after graduation comes graduation night. I remember my graduation night. Parts of it. There was a party at the rock quarry. I remember we were driving in the direction of the rock quarry when Sherice came up to the car and warned us away: “They’re drinking down there!” Mark did a fine job of exhibiting faux-surprise” “What? That can’t be! We can’t go there now!” The only other memory I have involves sitting on the square at 2 a.m. Me and Mark and Mike and Ronnie. I think JR was there. I don’t think Jay was. I think there was Frisbee tossing. On the town square. At 2 a.m. I remember thinking: What now?

Andrew’s graduation night was more subdued. We took him out to dinner at Lewis & Clark’s for chicken strips and fries, then we went for a walk down Main Street. He went to bed around 10 p.m. and he and Laura sang Barney’s “I Love You” song, the same way they do every night.

More pros than cons, really.

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8 responses to “Graduation And The Lost Payback

  1. Ronnie, I didn’t know your son has Autism! I am
    A Speech-Language Pathologist in the public school system…I completely understand the pros and cons you face every day, hour, minute, second. Something you should check into…when he turns 21 March (next year?) he has the right to complete that entire school year. I wasn’t sure which March you spoke of. God Bless your family!

  2. This is SO much better than the Steve Jobs speech at Stanford.

  3. That was AWESOME! No one knows the trials and tribulations of parents ….except those parents. Kudos to you and Laura for doing an AMAZING job! And congrats to Andrew for a job well done!

  4. Beautiful piece, Ronnie.

  5. Well, gee wiz Ronnie, you’re gonna have me crying here. Was such a treat to see you all on Saturday!

  6. I realize anyone who does not have an autistic child will never fully understand what the parents go through on a daily basis in raising their child. However, watching as Andrew has grown over the years, I can say you and Laura are doing an awesome job and you are two of the best parents I know. He is a very lucky young man to have been blessed with a great family, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends and teachers!

  7. Just beautiful!

  8. Very nice, Roy. You and Laura have been wonderful parents to Andrew. You are blessed in many ways, but mostly because you can see the blessings (pros) in life. Take care, Jay

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