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  • Writer's pictureAaron Mead

Autism, Individualism, and My "Empty Nest"


Empty bird nest

I was promised an empty nest.


In fall 2019, after a year of college applications, campus visits, and a high school graduation, my wife flew with my oldest daughter, Bella, from Pasadena, California, to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where Bella was to begin her studies in the honors program at Calvin University. She'd excelled in high school, she'd secured a big scholarship, and she was excited to finally experience winter. She was ready to launch. Or so we thought.


At first, things went swimmingly. Though she was difficult to catch on the phone, when we did catch her, she bubbled and gushed about her fast-friend roommate, the other delightfully nerdy residents in her honors dorm, and the compelling ideas and assignments in her courses. Her first semester grades were As and Bs.


Then came the compressed term between fall and spring semesters. She took an intensive course on the history of race and racism in America, fell behind, and had to drop it. Anxiety and mild depression began to nibble at her confidence.


Spring semester brought a similar story: her friends were still great, her courses still interesting, but she began not turning in assignments and found that she couldn't keep pace. Our difficulty getting her on the phone continued, but it wasn't that she was too engaged with her new life to talk with mom and dad; rather, she was just too tired.


By March 2020, with the pandemic in full swing, the university sent all students home to finish spring semester online, and my daughter struggled simply to pass two of her four courses. Despite her interest in the subject matter, she found herself so exhausted and devoid of motivation that she couldn't bring herself to finish final papers and exams.


Autism and a Full Nest


The pandemic wasn’t the only cause of these difficulties—or the main one. Like many young adults trying to launch in 2020, Bella started seeing a therapist and thinking deeply about her mental health. After reading Aspergirls, she suspected she might be autistic. A formal evaluation confirmed these suspicions.


There are many joyous aspects of Bella's autism, but one challenge it presents is that she's overwhelmed by sensory stimulation more easily than allistics like her younger sister, Liv. Bella can't watch TV or movies: the visual narrative draws her so deeply into the story that she can't control her feelings. She spends much of her day wearing over-the-ear headphones, just to cope with the noise of the world.


When my girls were little, I'd often bathe them together. I'd lather their little blonde heads with shampoo, scrub gently around their ears, and pour a pitcher of water over their heads to rinse off the suds. Liv thought this was great fun; she'd squeal with delight as the water splashed over her head. But Bella hated it; she resisted every step. My gentle fingers in and around her ears were bad, but the water splashing over her head was sensory overload. To this day, she dislikes showers.


College, for Bella, was just another kind of sensory overload. Too many people, too much noise, too much information, too much to do, and no way to recover before the next wave of over-stimulation. After coming home in March 2020, she skipped a semester and tried again in January 2021, but the result was the same: she just couldn't keep the neurotypical pace.


She came home in May, anxious, depressed, and low in confidence. Now, at age 22, she continues to live with us. For different reasons, her sister, Liv, age 20, is also living at home. They share a bedroom, like they have for all but one year of Liv’s life. There’s no end in sight to this arrangement. Our nest is still full.


Confessions of an Individualist


Having our children home is a blessing in many ways—they're both lovely young women, we laugh a lot together, and my wife and I aren’t experiencing the sad, lonely feelings common to empty-nesters.


However, having our kids around also comes with challenges, some of which are practical. Our little house often feels overly full. Getting them to do house chores has been, at times, well…a chore. My wife and I have had to experience their stumbles and fumbles of young adulthood up close, without the buffer of “being away at college," all while trying (and often failing) to transition to the more hands-off style of parenting appropriate to young adults. These practical challenges have forced us to work extra-hard at communication, which has included some family therapy.


For me, though, the deepest challenge has not been practical; rather, it’s been a challenge to my expectations, my values. At times, my kids seem too dependent on us. They should be finishing their education, getting jobs, preparing to live on their own. At twenty-three, I had a Masters’ degree, a well-paying job, and I lived in San Francisco, a thousand miles from my parents. What’s wrong with my kids? Why won't they fly away?


Apparently, I’m much more an individualist that I thought. The irony is that I’ve been known to think and say that individualism is one of the two great evils of American (western?) culture, right alongside consumerism.


When my wife and I first had kids, living far from our parents no longer seemed like a grand adventure. The work of parenting two young children was a relentless bombardment, a forest fire only fifty-percent contained. Why did we choose to do it this way, again? I looked with envy at our friends who’d stayed near their parents and received regular, hands-on support in raising their kids. The individualistic nuclear family began to look plain stupid.


As a serious student of the Bible, I’ve often reflected with wistful nostalgia on the extended family arrangements and tight community relations I find in its pages. At times, I’ve wondered if we American individualists can even properly be God’s church.


Caught in a Contradiction


I remain convinced of the evils of individualism. But don’t get me wrong: I don’t want a claustrophobic collectivism either, where the needs and desires of the individual are mostly subverted. What I oppose is individualism, where the balance between community and individual strays too far toward the latter. I see this imbalance in American culture.


But even as I reject individualism as a guiding philosophy, I see it entrenched in my own desire for an empty nest. How powerful culture is! At times, it resists even our reasoning, bypassing our intellect and reaching into our character to shape our desires and expectations. I’m a living mess of contradictions, and my daughter’s disability has helped me face that fact (once again). Her disability is making me better.


Bella may never live on her own. It’s still her goal, a goal I support. What makes me a (recovering) individualist is not my support for this goal, but rather my tendency to feel there’d be a problem if she never reached it. If living with us turns out to be necessary for her, and therefore best for the family, then I want to receive that future as a good thing and not as a problem. Because the truth is, I wasn't promised an empty nest. The real problem was feeling I was.

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