My Son Has Special Needs. Is He Ready to Move Out?

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My college freshman just asked us when he can move out of the house. The inquiry shocked my husband and me, mainly because we feel he is far from ready to be on his own.

He is two years beyond legal adulthood. Yet, his behavior falls short of “adulting.” Several milestones remain before complete independence:

  • washes own laundry
  • handles doctor appointments alone
  • buys groceries
  • balances checkbook

“I’ll Be Right There”

On the surface, he seems mature enough. My son is attending college (all online due to COVID), and he works a part-time job, where he drives himself daily. These are significant steps toward independence.

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However, many challenges persist. My son is mildly autistic and experiences selective mutism. This means he struggles to interact with people and sometimes finds it impossible to speak when anxious.

He would rather send a text than make a call. He prefers self-checkout to facing store employees. This interaction avoidance is somewhat typical for the current generation. But he panics when required to approach anyone for anything.

My son gets overwhelmed at having to ask a librarian for a book. Some situations are easy to get around—just reserve the desired book for pickup. But situations become problematic when he cannot ask for critical assistance.

He called once to say he was out of gas. When I asked where he was stranded, he said he was at the gas station. Confused, I guessed at the problem. “You have cash for gas,” I reminded him. There was a long silence. I thought perhaps he forgot how to pay in the store.

“Remember how we went to the station together,” I offered, “and I showed you how to tell the attendant the pump number and let them know how many dollars’ worth of gas you want?” A longer silence ensued.

At that point, I knew he simply couldn’t face talking to a stranger. “I’ll be right there,” I said.

Accepting Him as He Is

I know many parents might assume the problem is me. I coddle him too much, treat him like a kid, don’t give him enough opportunity to grow. I would have thought this too before facing the painful realization that my son is maturing on a slower timeline than most of his peers, and I need to accept him where he is.

One such painful moment occurred just last year.

I was across town on a field trip with the younger kids and received a phone call from my son’s high school vice principal, saying, “Ma’am, we caught your son looking through the school dumpster. When we asked him the reason for his behavior, he locked himself in his car and refused to speak with us. It is a hot day, and we are concerned that he may be endangering himself. You must come get him right now, or we will call Emergency Medical Services to forcefully remove him from his vehicle.”

Thankfully, he was spared the trauma of an EMS visit. My son simply likes collecting knickknacks. He got embarrassed and didn’t know how to explain himself. He gets anxious and can’t answer questions. Consequently, people assume the worst about him because he won’t talk.

After that, we bought him a medical bracelet engraved with our phone numbers and placed some basic-response index cards in his car: 

  • Yes
  • No
  • I don’t know
  • I can’t talk
  • Please call my parents

These cards came in handy later when he got into a fender bender, and a police officer requested his license and registration.

But Is He Ready?

Our job as parents is to love our children, keep them safe, help them grow in independence, and support them when they’re ready to start a life on their own. I’m still deeply concerned about safety at this point, much less independence. Unfortunately, my son does not seem to understand.

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“Why don’t you want me to move out?” he asks. I laugh out loud because I feel more than ready to release him once he exhibits the ability to care for himself.

“You have never made a phone call before. Not even to your boss to let him know you’d be late. That’s concerning to me,” I responded. “Would you be able to call someone if you cut your hand and needed stitches or something?”

His deadpan reply was, “Yes. You worry too much.”

Perhaps he’s right. Last weekend, his little brother really wanted to go to the store to buy a special Lego minifigure. My husband and I were both busy, so it was up to my son—if he wanted to take him. This was an item he could easily find and purchase at the self-checkout. He brought his brother to buy the toy.

Milestone checked!

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