“What percentage of a plan do you have?”
“I don’t know, like 12%.”
–Guardians of the Galaxy
Last month as we were decorating for Christmas, my son told me, “When I grow up, I’m going to have a Christmas tree.” I was floored. It wasn’t that the sentence was grammatically far beyond his typical speech. It was this: even though he’s 12, it was the first time I’d ever heard him talk his future.
My son has a developmental disability. He needs lots of help doing everyday things, like getting dressed, eating, and cleaning up. There are also lots of appointments with doctors, school and services to coordinate and attend, as I showed in my care map. So most of my focus as a parent is on the present—putting one foot in front of the other to get through the day.
I have a hunch that I don’t spend a lot of time in the past, confirmed mostly by the way my jaw drops when I look at baby pictures of my son and my daughter, who is 10. Were they really that small? Did that really all happen?
The future, too, has been neglected, more because it’s a scary place. Parenting without a diagnosis, then with a rare one that includes developmental disability and little in terms of evidence-based treatment, the future seemed as quiet, dark and void as outer space. Everything I take for granted parenting my typically developing daughter was a question mark when it came to my son. Would he survive into adulthood? If he did, would he be healthy? Would he be safe? Would he be happy? Would he be independent? Would he fall in love? Would there be someone to look out for him after I died? Exactly the kind of thing you feel like thinking about after the kids go to bed and the dishwasher has been loaded. Not.
The normal questions I pose to my daughter just don’t come up with my son. Ones like “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and “Where do you want to live?” or “Where do you want to go to college?” I didn’t mean to skirt them, but somehow, the busy-ness and the fear just got in the way. To be fair, we had gone through a vision-writing process with the help of some other parent advocates a few years ago, and the resulting insights played a role in little things going to a model train expo as well as big things like our decision to move half-way around the world. So I’m not a total deadbeat. But most of our planning has centered on the current school year or evaluation period, with some generic vision statement about my son feeling that he belongs and has a meaningful life that we cut and paste when needed.
Recently I’ve felt the need for a more specific vision around early adulthood. The countdown to adulthood begins early for kids who need lots of time to learn and prepare. It’s time to make tough choices about skills and goals. Where should he spend his time and effort? Is it important that he learns to read, or is it a better use of his time to go the store where he can practice social greetings, handling money, and navigating his neighborhood? This kind of parenting isn’t for the faint-hearted.
What will be most important for him in terms of the life that he wants to lead? At some point, this has to be less about me and my dreams and more about him and his. (Another wonderful gift that special needs parenting dishes up for the willing.) Creating a plan for the future means letting go of what matters only to me and embracing what matters to him.
Planning for the future can be a lot of things. It can simply be daydreaming about what lies ahead, or it can be a facilitated person-centered planning process that results in a document shared with others. I’m ready to do both.
So far I know my son will probably live together with a few other people who also need a lot of help and who want to play a lot more XBox than I do. There will certainly be an iPad involved. And keys. Most likely a dog. And definitely a Christmas tree.
Stay tuned! And send your tips.