This is how I hope you will treat my son as he enters the adult world

To: The world that my son is about to enter,

From: Ahmad Islam (As told to Lauren Brill)

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To the world that my son is about to enter,

As a parent, I am scared.

For the past 18 years, I’ve been in front of my son, blocking and clearing the way for him. But now he is beginning to step into the driver’s seat, literally.

When my son first asked me to learn to drive, I was like, “Bro! I don’t know.”

My instinct is to protect my son, but he was persistent.

Luckily, I am a part of a Black fathers group on Facebook. There was a dad that posted a video of his 18-year-old son, who was on the Autism Spectrum, driving. This kid was rolling and I think he was non-verbal. I hit the dad up.  We spent an hour going back and forth on the techniques he used to teach his son to drive. The most impactful piece of advice he left me with was to trust my son because he will surprise me.

See, my son, Gabriel, is an amazing young man, but he is also different. At two or three years old, we started to notice some delays. He wasn’t speaking and he didn’t know his name. By age five, he was officially diagnosed with Autism. My first instinct as a parent was asking “How?” and “Why?” But then I moved on to “What do I need to do to help him grow and develop?”

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As a child on the spectrum, he has faced many challenges. Gabriel didn’t speak until age five.

I remember saying, “Lord, help him speak and I’ll never tell him to shut up.”

These days, I wish I could renegotiate that deal because he is a chatterbox.

At first, learning to read was tough. Now, Gabriel reads very well and we focus more on improving his comprehension.

Throughout his life, he struggled with anxiety. At one point, he developed a debilitating fear of chickens. He was constantly worried that the chickens were coming to get him. We found a perfect school for him except for the fact that there were chickens on the campus. Fast forward to his senior year of high school, he is entirely comfortable with chickens and other animals. Also, he is thriving at that very school.

My son has amazed me so many times.

He’s very artistic and loves to draw. Gabriel has been putting puzzles together, multi-piece puzzles, since two or three years old. He takes one look at the box and then builds the puzzle out from the middle.  

When he was in middle school, I never thought about him taking karate. I was focused more on fundamentals. But not only did he participate in karate, he also won a trophy.

I remember him holding that trophy proudly and yelling across the room, “Dad, I did it!”

Two summers ago, Gabriel worked at a company in Chicago called Bargain In A Box. They have a program where they employ young adults with special needs. I figured they would have him do inventory or something that wouldn’t require him to interact with a whole lot of people.

Sure enough, Gabriel ended up greeting people at the front of the store and helping customers find products. As his father, I was so worried that his quirks might make some people uncomfortable and they wouldn’t be nice to him. In the end, he did well and he was fine.

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The more my son tries new experiences, the more I realize how important it is to let my son learn to drive – to sit in the passenger’s seat and let him navigate his way through the world.

On May 21st, Gabriel will graduate from high school. He is entering a post-graduate program that combines school and life skills, including helping him find a job.

We talk a lot about what he wants for his future and he constantly says he wants a job, a family and his own house. He still has not decided what field he wants to pursue, but he loves animals and art.  

As he enters this next phase of his journey, I understand that I will be in the seat next to him. Instead of being in front of him paving the way, I will be beside him, with the hope of one day being behind him.

The hardest part as a parent is all the uncertainty that lies ahead.

He is entering a world where a typical functioning 30-year-old black man in his neighborhood, minding his business, can still get shot by police.

There are so many harsh realities that worry me. However, I hope that we’ve done everything we could for the past 18 years to put our son in the best possible position to be ready for the world. While I would love to shield him from all the negativity he could potentially face, I understand if I don’t let him drive, I won’t ever give him the chance to find his way.

So, as my son enters the adult world, I want to give you a heads up that your paths may cross. He might talk to you out of the blue about whether Elmer Fudd is a good guy or a villain because that’s what enters his mind at that moment. Please understand that while he may be different and quirky, he’s still a human with feelings.

If you are a potential employer, please know that my son is super smart. He might require a little more patience and he may need to be prompted to do certain tasks, but you can stretch him and push him. He responds well to challenges. It’s part of his personality. So, let him tap into that.

For the woman he likes (probably the one with the long curly hair he’s liked since he was a toddler), he is a kind person. Once he finds the right girl, he will have a healthy and loving relationship.

My son is so excited not only to learn to drive a car but also to figure out how to navigate his life. There is a whole world out there he can’t wait to explore. While I am scared, I trust that he knows where to go and will surprise us all with what he can do.

However, as a father who loves his son,  I want to ask that you help make his ride a little smoother. It won’t take much. If my son pulls up to wherever you are, please just open your heart and welcome him.

It takes a village.

Many thanks,

Ahmad Islam
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