This is for all those who are facing uphill battles.
For all those who are facing challenges beyond what many of us face.
For all those who love someone who wakes up every day and overcomes.
This is for all those who teach someone who doesn’t learn the same as the others.
For all those who wonder if what they do will ever be enough.
For all those who spend time designing a different kind of way, for a different kind of kid.
This is for all those who say it can’t be done.
For those who give up on the ones who take too much time.
For those who believe that everyone has to take the same route to reach a certain destination.
Five years ago, my daughter and I listened as her therapist explained the challenges she would have in learning to drive. How those who are on the autism spectrum can have great difficulty with spatial awareness, timing, and reaction speed. How if she really wanted to learn, it would likely take more time, effort, and creative instruction than one might normally require. That it wasn’t impossible, but it would require patience, small chunks of learning, and much simulated practice.
Living in our town means no public transportation. Driving means independence. We didn’t see a choice. If there were any possibility of it being done, we had to try. We put on our toughest tough, or grittiest grit, our most determined determine. We began….
I first signed my daughter up for lessons at a local place where most students completed their driver education. She went to every lesson. She split time as a passenger, then driver, during the one hour lessons. At the end of the two months, she wasn’t ready and needed more instruction. The instructor agreed to take her on individually for extended time, and said he would meet us on the weekends for an hour lesson (at hourly rate of $80). We agreed. Some weekends, he would be there waiting in the parking lot of the High School, and she would have her lesson. Other weekends, he didn’t show up, and we would drive back home — she a little dejected. The last time we did that, she said, “He doesn’t come because he doesn’t think I can”. That was the last time we went.
I called many companies who offer drivers education to youth. I called companies who offer it to adults. Finally, one of them seemed interested in this challenge. The person on the other end of the line said, “We have an instructor who’s day job is working in an independent living center for adults with autism. He might be perfect for you”. And so, our drivers ed journey, finally, began.
He said she might be able to learn, and she might not. That some have that capacity. That others, simply, don’t. That he would need to spend time with her to make that determination, and that if it was not something he felt she could do, that I needed to be okay with hearing that.
The next weekend, we met this instructor in the McDonalds parking lot. I rode in the back seat and for two hours, she drove in and out of cones in a parking lot, pulled into slots, backed out, turned, and signaled. They talked, he asked questions, she made jokes. Getting to know each other. She was still terrified of driving, but wanting to learn at the same time. Our two hour parking lot lesson ended in an hour and a half with these words:
She Can Learn.
He said she would need two hour chunks of time, behind the wheel, weekly. He said he would start out in parking lots, then move to side streets, then busy neighborhoods, then freeways. He said she had good skills, good instincts, and good judgement. He said she lacked confidence. He said she would need to be put into situations that would require her to make decisions quickly, to reroute, to anticipate others, and to stay calm. He said she needed confidence. He also said it would cost $100 per lesson. We said, “Where do we sign up”.
Every Sunday for the next two years, we met him in that McDonalds parking lot. He never missed a session. Then one day, he said the words we had often thought really might never be said:
She’s ready to take her test.
The following week, she passed her driving test. The same week, she moved into a dorm to begin classes at a junior college. She mapped out routes to her most necessary places: Wal Mart for groceries, the gas station, the pharmacy, and her favorite clothing store. She has spent the last year doing that local driving and I have never been so proud. Until two days ago:
Over the past year, I have made the two hour round trip to her dorm to pick her up for the weekends. Because it is so far. Because it’s almost all highway. Busy highway. And then on Sundays, deliver her back to the dorm. Until two days ago.
I came home from work on a normal Thursday. As I pulled onto my street, I noticed a car that looked a lot like hers. I assumed my son’s new girlfriend must drive the same car. I pulled in, got out, and came inside. And then I saw my daughter, sitting in the living room watching TV and eating a pizza she had ordered.
“How did you get here”?
“I drove mom. Like everyone else does“.
I can’t begin to describe the feeling inside me as I listened to her explain the past two hours of her life:
I don’t like having to wait for you to transport me every weekend. I have thought about this for a while. This morning, I got up and decided it was time for me to drive home. I drove to McDonalds to get a drink, and then I pulled into a parking space. I sat there for a long time, maybe thirty minutes, trying to decide if I could do it. Trying to tell myself I could. Thinking of all the things that might go wrong. I was just about to turn around and go home, and then I decided, no. I’m going to do it. I’m going to drive home. So I did.
I want you to know, I could literally picture her sitting in that parking lot, wrestling with the fears, the thoughts, the second-guessing that has pretty much defined her entire life. The same things she felt in that other McDonalds back when she first began this journey several years ago. I imagined her sitting there, talking to herself, and coming to a fork in the road. This decision was one that I think she somehow knew would define things for her, going forward. It was her that wanted to do it. And it would be up to her whether to bravely take that step, or drive back to the dorm. She decided that she just didn’t want to be “unable” anymore. Just like she did three years ago. And so, with shaky hands but conviction, she pulled onto the road, turned left instead of right, and drove home.
Had I known she was doing this, I’d of had a heart attack! Sometimes maybe it’s better to not know.
The confidence in her since this simple act of driving home happened is incredible. Friday, I got home from work and she was not here. She arrived about an hour later, saying she called a friend back at the dorm and invited her to go hang out. She drove back to the dorm, picked up her friend, and the two went and got nails done, haircuts, and a lip piercing (that one I’m not so fond of). After dropping off her friend at the end of this full day, she drove back home, again. No worries. No fears. Well, maybe a little.
I think we have just turned a corner. Again. She keeps doing that, this girl of mine. Turning corners. Taking back roads to get to her destination. Taking her time. Going over overpasses, and under freeways, on her way to her destination. Success. Sometimes it’s a straight shot. Other times, the road is blocked, and she has to find another route. But she always does.
So to all of you, Keep Driving.