Personal Essay

A mother's struggle to let her son control his own journey to independence

When Jennifer Overton’s son was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder at age 3, she became a “card-carrying control freak.” When he moved away from home, she had to learn how to let go and support his transition to independence.
When her son Nicholas was diagnosed with autism at age three, Jennifer Overton says she became a “card-carrying control freak.” When he moved away from home at age 24, she had to learn how to let go and support his transition to independence. (Submitted by Jennifer Overton)
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By Jennifer Overton

I have always had control issues. Not of the world domination variety. More of the 'everything in its place,' 'if you want something done right do it yourself,' occasional backseat driver variety. I come by it honestly: my father straightened pictures on other people's walls and my mother ironed her tea towels.

But almost exactly 22 years ago I turned into a full-fledged, card-carrying control freak. One day my relatively benign tendencies were chugging along as usual, advising friends on how they should cut their hair and cringing at bad grammar, and the next day ... well, the next day was the day our three-year-old son, Nicholas, was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

My husband David and I slipped down a rabbit hole into a world we knew nothing about and where there was no one to guide us. There was no Autism Team then to take us by the hand, assess our needs and develop a strategy. Out of desperation and sheer necessity, I jumped into the driver's seat, strapped the three of us in, pulled out into traffic and headed down the dark, winding road.

Jennifer Overton spent years fighting to make sure there was a plan in place for her son, who is on the autism spectrum. When he decided to move away from home, she had to learn to let go and trust he could chart his own path. (Submitted by Jennifer Overton)

Much of those early days is a frantic blur, but one memory stands out: I was in the process of creating yet another homemade visual teaching chart; the kitchen walls and cupboards were plastered with perfectly categorized, perfectly labeled charts, social stories and agendas. Nic was sitting in the middle of the floor, noise reduction earmuffs bookending his little head. He was holding up my pair of craft scissors, stimming, fixated on opening and closing them, opening and closing, opening and closing. And I heard him whisper to the air, "The scissors are clapping."

The ensuing years were focused on educating the education system and fighting for supports. As a pioneer family we broke ground at every stage of his life. We were forced to start thinking about his adult life when he was barely "two digits old" (that's 10 to us neuro-typicals). An only child of aging and increasingly burned out parents, what would happen when we died or were carted off to the insane asylum? I heard horror stories of parents in their seventies that still had their adult children at home — the lists for housing were that long.

My son was expressing a desire to embark on a journey of his own choosing, not the one I had carefully crafted for him.- Jessica Overton

So I did what any self-respecting control freak would do: we bought the house beside ours when it came up for sale. I had it all figured out. He would move there with peers and support when the time came. And I would be right next door.

Then one morning, shortly after Nic's 24th birthday, the phone rang. It was our social worker. A spot had opened up in a group home 40 minutes away. Did we want to see it? I didn't think there was much point: it wasn't part of the plan and so would be a waste of everyone's time. But of course I said yes; I didn't want the 'difficult parent' notation in our file. Like it wasn't there already…

We drove 40 minutes and then up a long driveway — I clocked that the hedges needed trimming — to a large century-plus home that we later learned was the residence of an early Nova Scotia Lieutenant Governor. Ancient magnolia trees and woods surrounded the place. We went inside and were given a tour. Everyone was very nice, the house was big and bright and the layout surprisingly autism-friendly. After several visits and an overnight the unthinkable happened: Nic announced that he would like to give living there a try.  

I felt my grip on the steering wheel slip. My son was expressing a desire to embark on a journey of his own choosing, not the one I had carefully crafted for him. I broke out into a junkie's cold sweat because I knew, at that moment, that I had to start the process of letting go. And when your adult child is an innocent in this world, letting go is the hardest thing imaginable.

I didn't trust that the world would be gentle with my special son. I didn't trust that other people would take the time to understand him.- Jessica Overton

It suddenly became clear to me that all the years of control had been about one thing: trust. I didn't trust that the world would be gentle with my special son. I didn't trust that other people would take the time to understand him. Love him. I didn't trust that he would in fact be able to advocate for himself. In my mind, the only safe place for him was sheltered in my arms.

I smiled and told him how proud I was of him, and what a mature young man he was becoming. We would call the social worker in the morning to tell her the good news. Then I excused myself and cried in the bathroom for three hours.

Now, six months later, the slow and carefully orchestrated transition to his new home is complete. He happily sleeps in a bed where the sheets don't always have to match the comforter. He comes home on weekends wearing clothes that I didn't buy, telling stories of adventures with friends that I have never met. He just called to get my chili recipe because he wants to make it for his housemates; he said he couldn't talk long because he was off to his art group.

Withdrawal from control — and its good friend micro-management — has been very challenging and very emotional. But after this experience, handing over the reins is becoming a little easier. Don't get me wrong, I still mow the lawn myself to ensure the lines are straight, but at the same time, David is taking the lead in planning our second honeymoon. And I can't wait. I'm learning that there's a lot to be said for letting someone else take the wheel from time to time; a lot to be said for letting go, sitting back, and simply enjoying the ride.

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