By Liane Kupferberg Carter
It’s 51 degrees out. Which means my autistic 21-year-old son Mickey is wearing shorts and sandals.
“It’s too cold!” I protest.
“But it’s May.”
I get it. He hates socks. Loathes sneakers. Long sleeves drive him crazy. If we let him, he’d leave the house wearing shorts and sandals in January, and probably without a coat. Winter weather doesn’t deter him. Which has turned me into the kind of mother who says, “I’m cold, so you have to wear a sweater.”
I remember battling my own mother, who forced me to wear skirts with scratchy crinolines (yes, I’m that old). Is that what it’s like for Mickey when we ask him to wear clothes that itch or cling or rub, or bother him in ways we don’t even know, because he can’t parse the particulars of his discomfort? “Because I hate it,” he says.
I know how miserable I feel wearing Spanx. Is that how he feels about dress pants with a belt? Loafers? A blazer? Worst of all—a dreaded tie? “I want regular clothes,” he says.
I respect his sensory issues. I want to honor his right to choose what he wears. Unfortunately, there are just some circumstances where you can’t wear what you want, and it’s not only due to weather. Sometimes respecting his right to choose smacks up against the need to dress appropriately, whether it’s a volunteer job, visiting a house of worship, going on an interview, or hiking. It’s dangerous to climb a mountain in sandals, and disrespectful to go to synagogue in a T-shirt and shorts.
“Just for today,” he pleads. “I’ll be careful.”
Why am I making a big deal about shorts and sandals? Am I worried someone will say, “How can you let him go out that way?” and judge me as a bad parent? Yes, it’s chilly, but he’s not going to die of exposure if he goes out underdressed for this weather. Maybe if he does realize it’s cold or wet and he’s not as comfortable as he thought he’d be, he will learn from it, and next time wear something more suitable.
I try not to intervene with his choices unless health or safety is at stake. I may say, “What do you think your friends will be wearing today?” or “I don’t think those colors match,” but I won’t stop him if he’s really set on the combination. It’s a fine line between encouraging self-expression, and letting him leave the house wearing clothes that may make him an object of teasing or ridicule.
Haven’t I made similarly inappropriate choices? Worn high heels out of vanity, when I should have opted for more comfortable or practical footwear? Shivered in a thin summer dress I wanted to show off, instead of wearing something more sensible?
Mickey is a young adult now. He is chafing against our restraints. His struggle to pull away from us is developmentally appropriate. The business of adolescence and young adulthood is to separate from your parents, to find your own way in the world. Part of growing up for anyone is learning to make—and live with—one’s own choices.
He starts out the door in shorts and sandals, then goes back to his room. When he emerges, I see he has added a baseball cap and sunglasses. “I’m going to sunbathe today,” he says.
“Pack a sweatshirt,” I say. He doesn’t.
“I look handsome,” he says.
“Very cool,” I agree. And resolve to say nothing more.
Because it’s his choice to make. This isn’t about autism.
It’s about autonomy.
Liane Kupferberg Carter is a nationally-known writer and advocate in the autism community. She is the author of a new memoir, Ketchup is My Favorite Vegetable: A Family Grows Up With Autism (Jessica Kingsley Publishers.) Her articles have appeared in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Parents, Scary Mommy, Brain, Child, and The Manifest-Station.