The New Normal: When Your Older Child Goes Away to College, and Your Younger Child With Special Needs is at Home

We are very fortunate to have two children. This fall our older son, Peter, age 18, went off to college leaving our younger son, Danny, age 16, at home with us. Danny is on the autism spectrum and is non-verbal. We were excited about Peter’s opportunity to go off and start the next phase of his adult life. We felt that heading to university was a challenge that he was ready for and needed. In addition to the summer grad parties and all the rituals of preparing a child to leave, we also started planning how to handle this change with his younger brother.

Planning for a child going off to school is natural. In contrast, it was hard for us to prepare for how this change would affect our child with special needs. My wife and I had started to worry about how Danny would handle this new situation. Like most on the spectrum, Danny is most comfortable in a routine, which includes looking for where people are in the house, listening for familiar noises (like Peter’s friends coming over the house and laughing and talking loudly and playing video games), and the physical closeness that he and his brother shared. Danny has grown accustomed to Peter wrapping his long arms around him and spending time talking to him while he plays on his computer or IPad. We kept asking ourselves how Danny would he handle a quieter house without Peter around? I struggled with how best to prepare.

Fortunately, Danny’s school was very helpful in developing a social story about the transition. Once completed, they reviewed it at school, and we did the same at home. We talked to Danny daily describing what was happening and that going forward it will be different. Because Danny is non-verbal, I sometimes wondered how much he was taking in.

When the day finally came to drive Peter to The Ohio State University from our home in Chicago, we felt a bit unprepared. Within a day, Peter was in his dorm, set up and hugged a few too many times before we departed. The trip home was rough; we felt torn. In addition to dropping off our elder son and dealing with all those emotions, we thought that we had another challenge to face when we got home. The first few days back, I held my breath to see what would happen. What’s worse is I knew that I had some big weeks of travel coming for work, adding to my anxiety. I was worried for my wife, who I thought would bear the brunt of any fallout.

We continued to reinforce the social story and kept talking to Danny about Peter being off at school. Danny continued his routine, seeing who was around and looking for his brother. To my surprise though, he was fine, and we did not have any incidents. Seemingly, Danny adapted to the change faster than I did and was accepting of his brother’s absence.

A few weeks later my wife was on the phone with Peter talking, and he decided to take a picture
of himself and text it to my wife to show Danny. Danny loved it, and we texted an image back to Peter. Subsequently, we used Facetime to have them see each other. The act of seeing Peter on the phone provided a visual connection also helped the transition.

Sharing a life with a child that has special needs means you often worry about how things will go and what you will do to prepare. In my experience, I have found that (thankfully) most of my fears don’t materialize regardless of how much I worry about them. And, for the ones that do, I consistently realize that I have a lot more support than I knew I had. With our older son, I feel like we help and guide him to learn his life lessons. But with our son Dan, I feel like he is often my teacher helping me learn mine.

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