My son, Liam, is 18. He has autism and intellectual disability. I am his permanent guardian. He struggles with both receptive and expressive language. When he was originally diagnosed he was considered what we now call ASD Level 3 (requiring very substantial support). Over the years he has learned, grown and gained many skills. He is now considered ASD Level 2 (requiring substantial support).
I wanted to share this amazing moment with you (that you see in the picture) from a dinner Liam and I had in recent months. But first, let me take you back 14 years ago.
Back then, I was determined our family of four was not going to be stuck at home all the time just because Liam required “very substantial support.” One of the things we had always liked to do as a family was go out to eat, so that became one of my goals to help Liam get to a place where he could do so successfully. In the beginning it was really tough. There were a lot of times I just wanted to give up. But I stuck to my plan. We’d go to a family-friendly, but not crazy-loud restaurant. I’d come armed with his tablet, snacks, toys, and his picture communication chart. I also carried with me a business card I found online that explained that my child had autism, what that looked like/meant, and how others could best help and show compassion. We’d always sit in a booth so I could put him on the inside and block the most easy routes for escape. I would always ask the wait staff to bring his food first so he didn’t have to wait as long. Sometimes I would take him for a “walk” to the restroom or outside the restaurant to help him pass the time. Those days, Liam would pretty much only eat pizza, mac’n’cheese, chicken nuggets, and french fries when we went out.
Sometimes he would get frustrated when he didn’t see a picture of what he wanted and couldn’t tell me what he was thinking about if we didn’t have a picture for it and he couldn’t read or write to communicate. There were many times he was struggling to self-regulate which meant we had to rush to finish our meal and pay the check, get what we had left to go, or I would go to the car with Liam while the others finished their meals without us. For me, eating out became a huge job rather than a pleasant outing with the family.
Fast-forward to this night a few months ago. Liam and I went to a restaurant together to celebrate my birthday. The only thing we brought in was my wallet. I no longer have cards explaining autism to hand out. We sat across the table from each other at a booth for two on a busy aisle in the restaurant. The restaurant was family-friendly, but most of the people there were adults. There was a lot of noise and distractions with music and tv’s all over the place. Liam read the adult menu, decided what he wanted, and ordered his drink, meal, and a side of ranch all by himself. His language was stilted, but the server understood. While we were waiting, he tried to have a conversation with me. It was very simple and somewhat repetitive, but the point is he initiated the conversation. When he was getting a little tired of waiting (the place was busy), he asked me to squeeze his arm to help him self-regulate. When his meal arrived, I asked if he’d pray for us. He agreed and prayed one of his two memorized prayers over our meal. He used his utensils and his napkin appropriately. He didn’t have food all over the table or on his clothes. He asked for and filled his own to-go box with his leftovers that he wanted to take home. He waited by himself at the table while I went to the restroom and then went to the men’s restroom on his own to wash his hands. Afterwards, he sat patiently while I paid the bill.
Let me tell you – if we can do it, so can you! It’s not easy. It doesn’t happen overnight. It requires four key things: courage, intention, connection and hope. Courage to step out and choose what you want your life to look like and create a goal for it. Intentionally creating a plan of action and committing to it over and over and over again. Finding ways to build connection and understanding with your child (or adult) so that you can best help them learn the skills they need to reach the goal. Most of all, telling them that you believe in them and showing them (and yourself) that there is hope for the future. Hope may not always look the way you originally defined it, but it is hope all the same and it is beautiful!
Don’t believe me? Take another look at this photo. This is something I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to do this way. I really enjoyed my dinner date with my son and I am so grateful that we chose hope!