Flying with No Helicopter in Sight
By Lucy Berrington
I know what the answers will likely be. Still, I ask, “Would you let your 16-year-old fly thousands of miles alone, stay in hostels with strangers and pretty much do what he wants?”
Mostly, parents stare at me in disbelief.
And this is before I even mention (in case they didn’t know already) that the 16-year-old in question has Asperger’s syndrome). That’s when they glance at each other, perhaps betraying an unspoken question, “Who’s calling social services, you or me?”
“I wouldn’t.” They add quickly, “but that’s just me.”
No, I say, it really isn’t just you.
“Of course, it depends on the kid,” they say.
That’s true. It depends on the kid.
Still, almost none of the parents I know, it turns out, would allow their 16-year-old to do these things, regardless of the teen’s developmental or neurological status.
Even for me, the obvious response, when my elder son Hugh started asking to do this, was no. “Why exactly?” he wanted to know. Why exactly? Because you’re too young. “Too young for what exactly?” What exactly? You’re not even old enough for a gap year. High has two more years of high school.
In a New York Times article about preparing any age child for school, Arthur Levine and Diane Dean, authors of Generation on a Tightrope: A Portrait of Today’s College Student, point out , “It’s never too early for parents to start being careful about not being too careful with their children.”
My own high school classics teacher told my class decades ago that she’d left her teen son alone in the middle of nowhere with just a map to find his way home.
I needed friends in the mold of my classics teacher.
I sought out an indomitable mother I knew whose son finagled European citizenship, moved to Amsterdam and got himself into university for zero tuition and zero risk of being busted for pot. “Look,” she told me, “A hundred and fifty years ago these boys would have been sent out west at fourteen with nothing but the expectation that they figure it out.”
Another friend had just dispatched her 17-year-old to Washington, D.C. for a six-week internship. He was staying in the home of some lawyer they’d found on Craigslist.
These were my people.
It must be evident that I am not a helicopter mom by temperament. Still, I felt like one in the early years. When your child has developmental differences, even play and basic tasks become scheduled: social groups, occupational therapy, counseling. It’s one appointment after another, enforced helicopter parenting even for moms and dads who never felt comfortable in the chopper. By the time Hugh outgrew his need for most of these appointments, I was ready to dump the helicopter in some distant, humid jungle and let it rust. These last few years, both Hugh and his younger brother have preferred that weekdays wind down around 3 p.m., soccer exempted. If I scheduled tennis and Russian and basket weaving I’d have to schedule a family breakdown too.
Like every person who has autism, Hugh is required to inhabit a world that wasn’t designed for him. Its proportions and expectations are all wrong. When his developmental differences became noticeable at two-and-a-half, I asked our early intervention consultant whether he’d ever be able to find his own way in the world. She didn’t know: “Ten years ago we weren’t picking up these things in preschoolers. There’s no precedent.”
With years of appointments and services, some smaller classes, and support maneuvering through the world, Hugh grew up even more supervised than most kids. Yet now, when he sets out for a trip from our home just outside Boston, he won’t accept rides even to the subway station, where he hops on the Green Line to the airport..
Hugh made his first solo trip last July to Washington DC. “I’d never felt so free as the moment I stepped off the train,” Hugh reported from the hostel the first evening there. His second trip was to Edinburgh, with a layover in Dublin for the National Museum and two days with friends in England. His third, an unexpected gift from Dad, was to San Francisco. And in October he was lucky enough to swing a long weekend in Iceland — an earned reward from his indulgent father.
I haven’t parented other teens so can’t be sure of this, but it seems to me most have other stuff on their minds. As a Brit, I’ve noticed that travel is intimidating to many Americans, expensive, and not widely perceived as a solo adult endeavor, never mind a teen sport. Europe, though an ideal learning arena for young travelers, with its intricate rail system, hostel network and feckless gap year tradition, is far away. Consequently, it doesn’t tend to pop up as an option. Most US parents aren’t faced with the decision about endorsing solo teen travel. Instead they spend nearly every day and night with their kids until those kids go to college, and then the parents, bereft, freak out.
That might be how it goes with my 12-year-old, who has no interest in world exploration and regards family vacations as a heinous burden. The boys’ father and I moved to the US from the UK fifteen years ago, and later divorced, so they’re used to back-and-forth between two continents and two parental homes . Ours is in Massachusetts, Dad’s in Manhattan; and the boys tend to fly together as unaccompanied minors. Because of this regime, our younger son is prematurely travel-weary, whereas Hugh’s expeditions have barely begun. (His plans extend to space, which makes my head explode.)
It isn’t easy, judging when to step out of his way, and how far. Our negotiations are at times anguished. Hugh’s persistence is a mighty force in the universe, or at least our universe — a priceless asset when he’s excited about math, a challenge when he’s into coffee and action at 2:00 a.m. His passion for travel is tricky, exciting, and admirable, and I’m grateful for it. Many adults with varying forms of autism face colossal obstacles getting out into a world largely indifferent to their needs. Some spend decades in their parents’ basements.
Hugh reads travel guides and schedules, saves money, learns languages, studies how societies and cultures evolved: ancient migrations, genetic patterns, language families, the unexpected presence or absence of certain links. (Did you know English has more in common with the Sri Lankan language than with Hungarian? Or that the Basque people are genetically distinct, descended from Europe’s earliest inhabitants?)
His travel itineraries are filled with museums, galleries, national parks, noteworthy buildings, historical sites, restaurants offering abnormally large burritos. I can hardly complain that he’s not putting these travel opportunities to good use. To the cynics who suspect he’s sneaking into bars and brothels: I think not. Hugh sends photos and detailed reports, is faithful to the rules, and highly motivated not to screw up. Independence is earned, I remind him every time he acts immature. (Note to self: maybe stop doing that? No one can be mature all the time.)
I do think about safety, of course. Hugh is six feet tall, and broad; he doesn’t project vulnerability and is conscientious about minimizing risk. I worry most about unanticipated social situations, especially sharing a dorm with strangers, so this is what we’ve emphasized in the prep (“You’re discriminating against me because I have Asperger’s!”). He knows to be cautious in expressing his strong views on politics and religion, how to get through jetlagged nights without pacing the dorm, and his conversations with fellow travelers have mostly all been friendly. Hugh checks in several times a day via text, phone, Facetime and various social media, and hasn’t yet traveled anywhere we don’t have friends on call for emergencies, except for Iceland, where he joined a guided tour each day, so was fully supervised (the highlight of that trip was climbing the volcano that shut down international flights in 2010). Right now I’m urgently cultivating email relationships with friends of friends in Slovakia and Poland. Our one problem so far is his teen debit card account, which has been so unreliable I end up wiring Panic Cash. I’m in the market for an alternative.
Although Hugh’s solo trips have so far been to English-speaking destinations, I don’t see that as essential. Where he’s an obvious visitor, Aspergerian differences can become just an indistinct piece of the foreignness. He’s navigated an alien culture his whole life: travelling is his escape from the everyday stress of trying to pass. That’s why part of me is saying, “Go! Run!”
And while I’m cautious about attributing his characteristics to autism stereotypes, some classic Asperger’s strengths are much in evidence: his fascination with maps, his meticulous research and fidelity to planning, that all-consuming motivation and analysis, his independence, his unconventional vision. If my typically developing younger son ever changes his mind about travel I’ll face a different set of angsts (who are you going with? what exactly is the plan? you know I’ll have you shadowed?)
Flying back from San Francisco recently, Hugh started writing a travel guide: “According to St. Augustine, the world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page. I couldn’t agree more, but would go even further. I would say the world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page, but also cannot judge that page or critique it. … Travel helps us understand other cultures, which is an important thing, because without comparison to other cultures we cannot truly see our own.”
This time, I insisted on meeting him at the airport. (Please. It was midnight.) I waited in baggage claim, reading. Looking up, I took a moment to recognize the tall, smiling man striding towards me with the backpack, and the confidence that the world is after all, becoming his.
Related Link: In Defense of the Nap Year
Order Brain Teen: The Magazine For Thinking Parents