It may come as a relief to anyone who has ever driven with me to learn that this summer, at long last, I purchased a GPS.
If you have never driven with me, then I need to tell you up front that I am not writing with false modesty here. I will acknowledge that I have many talents, many gifts - however, a keen sense of direction is not among them.
My problem is worse than just having a poor sense of direction, though.
You see, I love road trips. I love driving to places I've never been just to see what's there. And I especially love being in the passenger seat, being in charge of changing the radio station and engaging the driver in conversation to pass the time. But I give the same warning to every driver I accompany on a road trip:
"Here's the thing," I say. "The thing is, I have no sense of direction. None. Zero. But if you ask me which way to go, I will give you an answer. I won't couch my response. I won't say, 'I think it might be this way,' or 'That way kind of looks familiar," and I will absolutely, certainly not say 'I don't know.' I will boldly and confidently respond 'Take a right' or 'Take a left' and I will sound so absolutely sure of myself that even though I've told you all this, you will take that right or left. And about 85% of the time, I will be wrong."
I say this. Truly, I do. I say it that clearly and that directly. And nearly every time, not long into the trip, the driver will pause at an intersection and say, "Do I turn here?" and I will say, boldly and confidently, "No, keep going straight." And then we will go anywhere from 50 yards to 50 miles out of our way before the driver decides to turn around and try again.
This is fact.
So, really, believe me when I tell you that it's in everyone's best interest that I've purchased a GPS.
Bud and I broke it in early this summer and we've both become big fans. Thanks to an episode of Curious George, Bud calls it our "auto navigator" and he wants it on at all times. At first, he seemed to think that it was kind of like the Wii. As we drove past the lake and the road edged the water, Bud coached from the back seat in the same tone he uses when he watches me try to walk the Wii tightrope: "You're doing great, Mom! Don't let the car fall in the water!" But now he seems to get the point of it and enjoys having the auto navigator tell us which way to go.
Of course, we don't always listen to the auto navigator. Sometimes it tells us to go one way, when we'd just prefer to go another. And magically, beautifully, instead of fighting us on it, the auto navigator simply just takes a virtual look around, recalibrates, and says, "Okay, well, now that we're here, how about if we try going this way?"
We used the GPS for the first time on a Friday in July, as Bud wrapped up his first week in his Extended School Year summer program. As we drove, following the encouraging electronic voice of our new auto-navigating friend as she pointed us in all the right directions, I thought about how nice it would be to have a GPS for parenting. I imagined myself punching in the destination "outburst managed effectively" and waiting mere seconds for the instrument to calculate my route to success. How nice it would be to move forward with the assurance that if I made a parenting misstep, a gentle voice would instantly redirect me: "When possible, make a legal U-turn."
I reminded myself that I was not alone in that desire - that most parents would love to have this kind of instrument - though perhaps parents of children with special needs would use them more often than most. I thought about how, in the absence of a parenting GPS, we special-needs parents try to find other kinds of road maps. We try to take direction from experienced guides - those who have travelled the roads before us with success and finesse.
And then I started to panic.
Am I doing the same thing on my blog that I do when I'm the passenger in a car?
Am I telling my parenting story with unwarranted confidence, leading unsuspecting parents down paths that are 50 yards or 50 miles out of their way?
Should I add a flashing neon disclaimer that scrolls across the top of my blog: "WARNING: I don't actually have any idea where I'm going here" or, simply, "Construction Vehicle - Do Not Follow"?
I was somewhat reassured when I reminded myself that when I'm feeling least confident, I tend to go on fewer road trips. In other words, when things with Bud are particularly tough and I really don't feel like I know what I'm doing, I don't usually write many blog posts.
And such was the case on that Friday as I drove towards home, the GPS seamlessly laying out the route I already knew so well. I considered how little I'd been posting to my blog, how little about our life I felt I could share, and how much I longed for a Magic GPS of Autism Parenting. I thought about how hard it was to know what to do in the face of escalating anxiety and aggression. I thought about how nervous I was that summer was upon us - summer, once my favorite season, now fraught with landmines disguised as long, unstructured, routine-free days.
My heart raced as fast as my brain as I thought about the weeks that had led up to the start of Bud's summer program - weeks full of e-mails and conversations that challenged me to take a stronger stand than I ever had before, that made me leave the safe haven of collaboration and step with false confidence into a land of contentiousness, as I tried to ward off a rerun of the previous summer and found myself for the very first time using phrases like "free appropriate public education," "entitled by law," and "due process hearing."
As we neared our house, my racing thoughts were interrupted by the calm, even voice of my new GPS auto-navigator, who gently reminded me that the left I was about to take was, indeed, my best alternative. The interruption changed my focus and made me consider how the parenting turns I'd made in recent weeks seemed to be playing out.
We had a good summer plan in place. It wasn't ideal - it wasn't identical to my original request - but it was a good, solid plan. It was, in fact, the best Extended School Year plan that Bud had ever had.
And Bud had just successfully wrapped up his first week of the Extended School Year. He'd made the transition beautifully. He'd started each school day happily - no arguing, no groaning, no long, tearful goodbyes at the door. He'd had great reports each day when his session had ended. And now, after a full week and a newly-established routine, he sat in the back seat as we headed home, humming along with the radio and talking back to the auto-navigator, happy and content.
Just then, we pulled into our driveway, and the calm, even voice of our auto-navigator said one last thing:
"You have arrived."
Startled, I looked at the screen. And there was the message, bright and glowing:
"You have arrived."
I almost burst into tears.
I had no idea how much I'd needed the validation - how much I needed to hear from a voice outside my own head that the risks I'd taken were paying off, that my judgment had not led my son 50 miles in the wrong direction, that despite my panic, we were moving toward our goal.
Certainly, this was one small stop on a very long journey. Clearly, it was not the hardest leg of the trip and we'd not taken the most complicated route. But in that moment, on that day, sitting in that driveway, the words of my new-found electronic friend meant everything to me.
We had arrived.
The summer program played out well for Bud. I don't think I've burned bridges with the school district. And now, as we look ahead to the next phase of our journey, we seem to be facing new landscapes with what looks to be rocky terrain.
I still wish I had a parenting GPS.
But I'll tell you this for sure: for the foreseeable future, I'll be using the GPS I do have to chart a lot of journeys home.
MOM-NOS writes about her parenting journey at Mom - Not Otherwise Specified. She invites you to read her posts, but reminds you that your mileage may vary.