When kids are younger, there is an acceptable question that is often asked usually starting around the age four or five. It starts off innocently enough. A child colors a beautiful picture of their family or a child can swing a golf club. Adults think there are being relatable to the young children by saying “Do you want to be an artist when you grow?” or “I bet you’ll be a golfer when you grow up!” The innocent question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” is meant to be harmless. Whether the response is is a cowboy, a train conductor, a pilot, a princess, a cop, a firefighter, a writer, a doctor, a teacher the list goes on and on. The answers are cute, of course, coming from those bright shining little faces. This dialog continues up until high school. The question stays the same, but the wording changes as the child grows up. with the prospect of post-secondary education on the horizon, the question changes to “Where are you going to college?” or “Do you know what you want to study in college?” I remember it happening in my life. I am witnessing it right now with one of my boys. D is making the transition into the “what do you want to study in college?” But because of P’s special needs, those same questions are not asked of him. Sure, he’s had school assignments where he had to answer the question of What do you want to be when you grow up? But beyond that, there has been nothing.
One thing we do at our house is to include college in our conversations. There is no if you go to college, it is when you go to college. We have taken the boys to many college campuses around the Midwest. Some trips were for sporting events, some trips were to see the latest production from the drama department, some trips were for camps, and others were just to look around. My husband and I want our boys to be able to have the internal dialog that includes when I go to college. Post-secondary education is a part of the expectation has been set for both of our boys. D has understood that study beyond high school helps with career goals and can give more opportunities for jobs, travel, and family. P, on the other hand, has not really subscribed to the thought “I will go to college.” He is aware that school is hard for him. He has not been a fan of willingly and knowingly agree to pay for four additional years of academic work. That is until two months ago when his great grandma was moved to a skilled nursing facility. I’ve written before (read here about P’s great-grandma) that P and his great-grandma were special friends. Now after the initial newness, the skilled nursing facility has turned familiar. P is very interested in the people. He has learned very quickly that they have stories to tell.
It is amazing. P takes his time to listen to the stories. He has learned from one lady that she flunked kindergarten because she wouldn’t cut her graham crackers at snack time. He also learned that another lady lived in South Korea for 32 years. P has taken the time to learn names and room numbers. He has realized that the people went to college and worked at different jobs, they got married and had children, they traveled, and they had fun. P knows more about the residents at the skilled nursing facility than he does of his classmates that he has known for the last six years.
Each Saturday, the nursing facility hosts a bingo game for the whole facility complete with prizes and snacks. Now, P likes a good bingo game himself. He loves to help others even more. He had asked his great-grandma if she’d want to go to the bingo and when she agreed, he was seriously excited! P got to work helping the residents with their bingo cards repeating numbers when necessary or helping cover numbers so to that everyone would have a chance to yell BINGO! When bingo was over, P happily asked the activity coordinator if he could do anything else to help her out. Next thing I saw, P was stacking bingo cards in the bin to be used at the next bingo game. He was whisked away to the kitchen to get snacks for the residents. P was smiling so big pushing the snack cart. Now, as his mom, I’ve seen the lowest lows when P has not been interested in interacting with the outside world. This made my heart so happy. I watched as P confidently approached each table spoke loudly and clearly for all to understand him. He used eye contact, pleasant manners, and added a “be careful with your drink” as he opened pop cans, poured juice, and handed out cookies to all the bingo players. He answered questions. There was an excitement in his eyes. I was intrigued to watch this happen for my boy. Autism has made him reluctant to be social. This was not the usual mode of operation for my boy. I was excited to see him put himself out there.
While pushing great-grandma back to her room, P asks me, “Mom, where do you have to go to college to work in a place like this?” We had an honest conversation about different positions such as nursing, activities, food service, and maintenance employees that keep the facility running in tip-top shape every day for all of the residents. I mentioned a few colleges to P that I knew he would know. He seemed entranced by the idea of working. P has never had an interest in a career until know. It is churning around in him right now, developing and taking shape, while these experiences are helping him to answer the grown-up question of What do you want to be when you grow up?
All my best to you,