Risk-taking … See Sam Drive

Recently, Dan Burns (author of Saving Ben, A father’s story of autism) told me about a time that his son got ahead of him on the bike trail and was missing for a while. Nothing was wrong in Ben’s world, but for the rest of the adults in his life — who were accustomed to keeping much closer track of Ben — it was a scary time.

Because both Dan and Ben now have GPS on their wireless phones, that worry has been allayed. But hearing the story made me think about how important it is to parents of adults with autism to stay hopeful.

Mark and I have two other children — both teenagers — whom we also worried about, but in a different way. We knew they would be on their own someday. We had to let the rope out bit by bit, allowing them the risks and chances. Sometimes, with Sam, we had to remind ourselves he was entitled to his risks and chances, too.

Mark’s hope for Sam had always been of the most audacious kind. He watched Sam learn to ride a bicycle, and to ride a horse. Sam has been riding horse at Riding Unlimited in Ponder since he was 5. He’s Class A now, competing in Chisholm Challenge at the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo, and in the Special Olympics, in events that walk, trot and canter.

Once, in the middle of the show ring about five years ago, we both watched Sam as another rider almost lost control of her mount. Unlike the other riders, Sam saw what was going on and steered his horse away from the trouble. Mark was encouraged by that.

Over the years we had learned to watch for signs of Sam’s readiness, and then made our move to try new things. Mark decided early on that Sam could learn to drive. He started him on our tractor … mowing around the pecan trees in our small orchard.

Now, we’ve had to repair a few sections of fence, and a couple of trees took fatal hits, but Sam got the hang of it – that sense of moving through space, and how you occupy space in a vehicle, keeping an eye of what’s in front of you, and what’s behind you. Mark decided Sam was ready to mow for other people.

Mark would make sure Sam knew the route to wherever they were mowing, and he would set Sam off down the street, and follow behind in the pickup. Mark would mow the perimeter, scope out any hazards, and set Sam up to finish the job. Sam did well. Sometimes the tractor gave him fits, but he learned to cope with loose wires and clogged filters and he built a small, but loyal clientele.

One day, Mark followed Sam on a route to a new customer and watched as Sam turned the tractor left in front of an oncoming car. Mark was so upset that day. He realized that he’d forgotten a critical part of learning to drive – you must recognize that other drivers might be thinking differently than you. I asked Mark whether the other driver had to slow to let Sam make the turn, and he said that he had not. But it bothered him for days, even weeks, that Sam did not slow before the turn. He was skeptical that Sam had grown to be that good of a judge of time and space, and someday he could do something that would really freak out other drivers.

We weren’t sure what to do next, but we weren’t quite ready to give up. Maybe there would be another sign of readiness.

Meanwhile, Sam was not sure. He told us quite pointedly around his 16th birthday that he was not ready to learn to drive, so we didn’t push him.

Mark managed to score an old Volvo station wagon, for free, the Christmas after Sam’s 16th birthday. Mark thought Sam’s fear might wane if he had a car of his own, maybe even to just drive around the orchard. When Sam pulled a set of car keys out of his Christmas stocking, his younger brother and sister gasped, and ran to the window to see. Yes, Sam, Mark told him — we got you a car for Christmas. Sam went to the window, and then turned red-faced and put the keys back the in the bag. He was probably the only 16-year-old in modern history who got a car for Christmas and was angry about it.

He never drove that car. Eventually, Mark gave up, and started harvesting parts out of the car to fix our two other Volvos – even though they were three different years and models, the parts were as interchangeable as Legos.

But two years ago, when Sam was riding the SPAN bus back and forth to work and to his classes at North Central Texas College [and when SPAN couldn’t drive him, and the schedule was driving us ragged], he decided he was ready to learn – his younger brother, Michael, was learning to drive, too, and Sam didn’t want to get behind his little brother.

Sam studied the driver’s handbook and passed the written test with one question to spare. We took him practice driving for months. Mark gave a lot of thought to the lessons, and there were still some terrifying moments in the early days, but as Sam got the hang of it, we could tell he would be alright. But just to make sure it wasn’t just our opinion, we asked Baylor Rehabilitation to help. One of their occupational therapists is a driving instructor and Texas Rehabilitation Services helped us get more than 20 hours of instruction from her, too. She said Sam was a good driver and would be fine.

And he has been fine. He’s driven for two years now without incident. Mark taught him the Smith system – a way of looking ahead for hazards on the road that he learned as a trucker in the summer. Of course, Baylor’s instructor helped inculcate Sam, too, with all those little rules of the road that the rest of us violate all the time – like stopping behind the stop line at intersections and keeping one car length between us and the car in front for every 10 mph of speed. A co-worker of mine drove from Denton to our house several months ago and recognized Sam’s car behind him. Gary joked with me, saying your son will never rear-end someone. He kept five car lengths between us the whole way … he never waivered.

Mark was killed in a traffic accident before Sam took his driving test – and passed – on the first try to get his license. But as clearly as I see the driving examiner, and Sam stepping happily out of the car that day, I can imagine Mark’s smile, too. In my mind’s eye, Mark’s smile was this wonderful mix of fatherly pride, and triumph — knowing that he had planted the seeds years before and waited patiently for Sam to learn and grow, and that sometimes he had to nudge him along, taking the chances, and waiting for Sam to respond. Mark was always thinking it through, because however long it was going to take to achieve this milestone of independence, we were going to do what we had always done … we’d just do what it takes … to see Sam drive.

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