An Empty Nest Summer

The summer season, which astronomically does not begin until the solstice, but for vacationing, socializing, and summer trips begins with Memorial Day weekend, will be an unusual one for my wife Lisa and me. Our son Micah, who is approaching his twenty-first birthday late in the summer, will be spending two months with one of his older sisters. Both sisters live in the same city, which is several hundred miles away from our home. Micah will be spending time with both of them and their husbands. This means that for the first time since the birth of our first daughter nearly thirty-four years ago, Lisa and I will have no child in the house, albeit temporarily.

Micah is on the autism spectrum with a diagnosis that under previous standards was called Asperger’s Disorder. Under the new DSM-5 he would likely be diagnosed at Level 1 of Autism Spectrum Disorder. His academic history, combined with our observations of him over the past 16 years, would suggest that he also could be diagnosed with Specific Learning Disorder with impairment in mathematics, particularly number sense and calculation. After he completed fourth grade, Lisa home schooled him until he began ninth grade in an online charter school. Even then, Lisa took primary responsibility, and I took a lesser role, in keeping Micah on task with his school work. Since graduating high school two years ago, Micah has been working on a certificate in animation at a regional college within our local state university.

To write that Micah’s educational experience has been challenging for all three of us would seem an understatement, and this is especially so for Lisa, who has spent the better part of her days for the past eleven years supervising his schooling. So having two months with only the two of us, and our early-rising dogs, in the house will be very different. The most obvious change will be that we won’t worry about what to feed Micah. His sensory issues cause him to restrict his food to a very few tastes, so getting him to agree to a restaurant that we prefer is a struggle, or sometimes a battle. And he simply won’t eat food we cook at home. I know that some of you, unfamiliar with life with a child on the spectrum, will think that this is simply a disciplinary issue, and that we are too soft as parents. Lisa and I would beg to differ.

For any of you who truly have not spent much time with a child on the autism spectrum, I highly recommend the book Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism, by Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind. Suskind recounts the path of his and his wife’s son, Owen, from early childhood to adulthood. Like Micah, Owen finds special meaning and a vehicle for communication in the works, and especially the films, of Walt Disney and the Walt Disney Company. Owen and Micah are different individuals, of course, but the parallels in many aspects of their lives struck me as almost eerie. If you want to learn about one family’s journey with a child on the autism spectrum, please read this book. It may open your eyes to the challenges that so many families, including ours, try to meet every day.

Now you may understand why this summer will be a special one. In one sense, it will be somewhat liberating. Lisa and I may spend more time paying attention to each other than we have in previous summers. (I assure you that caring for Micah is not the only activity that occupies our time. I am one who spends much of my time on work matters.) Nonetheless, we will very much miss our son for the next two months, and you can be sure that we will welcome his return as much as any family welcomes home its neurotypical child. Perhaps the experience will help inform the eventual decision we all have to make in response to this nagging question:  “Where will Micah live when we can no longer provide a home for him?”

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