An Open Letter to the U.S.P.S. from a Mailman’s Daughter . . . and a (Four Day) Mailman’s Mother

Dear U.S.P.S. Family,

Hello and good afternoon. I’m pleased to have your attention if even for a few moments. I’m humbled to have the chance to introduce myself to you.

I’m an agent for change, who uses social capital and a powerful voice for the greater good.

You see, I’m Catherine Hughes, also known as The Caffeinated Advocate. I’m an author, editor, blogger, speaker, trainer and leader. I’m also a proud mailman’s daughter. I ultimately consider myself a storyteller, and I want to share a story with you. Maybe, just maybe, my words will inspire an opportunity to create a conversation, and consideration for change.

***

“Speedy delivery!” said my son Christian (Chris), smiling for the camera and posing with our dog, Abby.

He couldn’t wait to show his mailbag to the neighbors (you’ll notice the bag is slightly hidden with his hand in front of the logo in this photo as not to break policy). Chris came home from his second day of orientation this past Tuesday with more paperwork and his bag in hand. To him, this wasn’t just any sack.

It was a status symbol.

It was his future.

It was his dream.

It was EVERYTHING.

Chris’s grandfather is John Tomko, who served the U.S.P.S. primarily in McKeesport for almost 25 years. For many of you reading this post, you don’t know who John was. Allow me to share a bit about my childhood hero — and Chris’s. To the communities of families on his routes, John was “the mailman.” He considered himself fortunate to call his customers his friends. He was a dedicated carrier who never complained. He even served as a supervisor for a period of time, but ultimately returned to doing what he loved. I remember when Dad passed, some of those very people attended his viewing, because he had that much of an impact on them.

We lost Dad on July 14, 2009 — ironically, eleven years to the day that Chris brought home a mailbag after day two of orientation, preparing for the training academy the following week.

Chris attended his third day of orientation, and then was sent to another location for day four. He understood that it was the day he would “learn to drive a mail truck,” and he was nervous, but also excited.

It turned out that “learning to drive a mail truck” meant demonstrating to someone in a matter of moments that he could handle driving a large vehicle — positioned on the other side of the truck mind you — and then park it between cones.

Chris’s nerves got the best of him, and he was told he did not pass the test.

As an adult on the autism spectrum — and even as a child — he endures moments of heightened anxiety when tests are administered. It is no surprise that without any practice or preparation that this task did not end well.

What DID come to me as a surprise, was that Chris was told he was now “separated” from his position, and that someone from HR would call him to discuss another option.

Someone sure did — and suggested that he apply for a clerk position . . .

. . . in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, four hours from our home.

Wait, what?

That’s it?

Chris went from achieving the career of his dreams and achieving ultimate financial security to being unemployed . . . and during a global pandemic? He left a well-paying union job with full benefits. Now he has . . . nothing.

How is this allowed to happen?

I can’t wrap my head around this, and goodness knows I am digging deep and I’m trying. I cannot understand why this test, if it is a requirement of the position, was not part of the multi-step process when he received the contigency offer.

Why allow someone to put in their notice and leave a secure position for something that is clearly not secure?

I cannot understand how someone is hired for a job, then it is decided AFTER hire, “oh wait, this person cannot do XYZ, so therefore we will just let them go.”

I’m confused. Where was his training? Are police hired for a department and sent to the streets, only to learn that person wasn’t trained to handle a weapon? Are teachers placed in front of a classroom of students having never learned how to instruct children? Are doctors handed a scalpel and told “Good luck! Don’t kill anyone, now, ya hear?”

Listen, I understand that “rules are rules” and that this is a requirement of the position. I’m not here to debate that. What I am here to suggest is that your orientation is flawed at best.

No one — again, especially in 2020 when millions are filing for unemployment — should leave a secure position for something that is not guaranteed.

You dropped the ball, U.S.P.S. And, boy, oh boy, are you missing out on one of the best carriers you could ever lay your eyes on.

Chris was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder at the age of three. He was moderately impacted at the time of diagnosis, and we were very uncertain at that time what the future might hold for him. Over the years, he continued to break down barriers and defy many odds.

He graduated with honors and has worked in different positions since leaving school to gain experience and explore his options. In fact, up until our local paper was discontinued, Christian was our neighborhood newspaper carrier. During a speech given after being awarded a rotary scholarship in May 2016, he said, “I look forward to serving my community and giving back to others. My disability will not hold me back.”

Chris passed his written road test two years ago, and his driver’s test last year after much practice and perseverance. He was excited to become a licensed driver so he could visit all of the neighborhoods he’s been studying for years. He is the biggest Google Maps expert you will ever meet!

Chris would have easily mastered the sorting of mail and delivery very quickly, I have no doubt. The truck would have taken perhaps some extra practice — and some extra patience (I oughta know, since I’m mom!) — from his instructor.

Ultimately, my son is an overcomer, just like me and just like his grandfather. After receiving his terrible news, holding his welcome letter in his hand (again, dated July 14th, the day a former carrier took his last breath) and looking at his mailbag with tears, Chris dried his tears and started to move forward. He is already making connections and searching in the hopes of taking whatever next step is meant to be.

If you are interested, I’d love for you to read more about our journey. My latest book, a powerful memoir, went live on Amazon for pre-order on — you guessed it, July 14th to honor Dad’s role in our story. Imprisoned No More: A Mother and Son Embrace Autism and Journey to Freedom shares how both Chris and I have triumphed over unthinkable tragedy.

I don’t know what’s to come, but I know that Dad is our guardian angel. I believe in my heart that what is meant for us, will not pass us. Chris’s future is bright and I believe that he will find his way.

U.S.P.S., you will always be “family” to us. Being a proud carrier allowed my father to keep a roof over our heads and food on our table. He made many friends along the way who will never forget him. I still have his route tag (forever #28) in my drawer. Sometimes at my lowest moments, I take it out and hold it for strength.

As that family member you just can’t get rid of (you know, like the holiday visitor that just doesn’t take the hint?), I urge you to consider your current hiring practices. No one should be placed in the position of leaving their current role and then risk being on the unemployment line days later after not passing a test — a test in which my son hit a cone for goodness sake. It’s not like he hit a mailbox or a pet. He hit TRAFFIC CONES. Now you have let him go, and he has no income, no medical benefits, but yet feels great shame that by no means he should be carrying. That is wrong on so many levels.

I implore you to consider your contigency offers and revamp your orientation. If you are training someone, please provide thorough training for that individual. Heaven knows without practice, if handed the keys to the mail truck, I would not have returned it in one piece!

I do not ever expect any sort of response, but I do pray that change will come for future candidates so that no one experiences what Chris did this past week.

2020 is a time for much needed change, and change starts with us.

Advocacy is by no means easy, but I will fight for a better world until I take MY last breath.

That . . . is something that I can promise you that I will ALWAYS deliver.

Respectfully yours,

A Mailman’s Daughter . . . and a Mailman’s Mother (even if for only four days, an accomplishment achieved nonetheless)





From Behind Bars to Behind Communities – Our Epilogue . . . Or Is It?


In 2018, on what I now call “my anniversary,” I published a blog post, From Behind Bars to Behind Communities — Our Beginning. I shared excerpts of our story, as I have for almost fifteen years in many different capacities.

I said in that post, “the day didn’t go as it was ‘supposed to.’ Or . . . did it?”

Though I have spoken to audiences ranging from 7 to over 700 people sharing pieces of “our puzzle,” never have I released the full story. It has taken me almost twenty years to recall more memories from our past so that I could create a story to be shared. I vowed during a speech in 2008 at Heinz Field, emceed by Larry Richert of Newsradio 1020 KDKA, that someday I would write a book and document our entire story. After I finished speaking, I received a standing ovation and was in tears. I had never spoken in front of a room of that size in my life, but in that moment, I felt empowered. Sharing our story was freeing.

“World, you had better watch out for this jailbird mom. She’s clearly not done yet,” he said.

You were right, Larry. I wasn’t done. WE — Christian and I — weren’t done. Not by a long shot!

There’s a song from the nineties by a band called Semisonic called “Closing Time.” Perhaps you’ve heard of it. Perhaps you sang the title and didn’t read it (hey, to each their own).

One of my favorite lyrics from that song is, “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”

July 14, 2020 marks multiple milestones for my family:

1) My beloved father, John Jerome Tomko, will have been departed from his earthly presence for eleven years.

2) Christian is attending day two of his orientation for the U.S. Postal Service as he trains to be a City Carrier Assistant. He’s following in Grandpa’s footsteps.

3) Imprisoned No More becomes available on Amazon for pre-order, and I will begin to accept private orders for the paperback prior to the official release on August 23, 2020.

I’m pricing the ebook at just $.99 cents as an introductory offering, and I hope you will consider a purchase to support our story and help my message reach people around the world. By making a purchase during my Virtual Pre-Order Party and pushing the book up the ranks as a best-selling release, more and more people will be notified about its existence which means I can offer help and hope to people across the globe.

Be sure to join this virtual all-day event, which will remain on Facebook permanently. I’m sharing quotes, videos, and more here first on this event page exclusively for guests, and will have posts for you every 30 minutes. I am so excited to share in this day with you all!

Christian and I have accomplished so much, both individually and together.

This isn’t the epilogue, my friends. We’re stepping into the next powerful chapter in our journey.

Sharing our story has freed us.

We are imprisoned no more.

To be continued . . .

***

You can purchase Imprisoned No More: A Mother and Son Embrace Autism and Journey to Freedom, or any of my other books by visiting my Amazon Author Page. You can also pre-order the paperback from me personally before August 23rd! If you pre-ordered the Kindle version for your own digital copy and/or to help support my message, I will be removing that dollar from your order to say thank you.

The Revolution

It isn’t what I pictured, that’s for sure.

At the beginning of 2020, I was:

~ authoring chapters for a few collaborations
~ editing new projects
~ working on content for an international virtual conference
~ accepting more interviews
~ moving through my daily role at ATS

… all while of course supporting my family. I looked at my bracelet from my BFF Christina Abernethy — the MyWord bracelet that says “revolution” — and I thought I had it all figured out.

I had so many plans for 2020 — a few more collaborations, maybe create a course, start creating the book of my dad’s poetry that I promised to publish for him, and put some more work into a memoir that has been almost two decades in the making. I meditated, prayed and agonized over when it would be time to release this book to the world. I decided 2021 made the most sense as it would mark 20 years from the incident where it all began.

I brought everything to a screeching halt in March, and started to say “no” as much as I wanted to maintan my constant “yes.” What happened?

Uh, COVID happened?

We’ve been surrounded by illness, anger, fear, protests, riots and even death. It is a time where we all, collectively, are moving through a trauma and are finding a new way forward. It’s been devastating for all of us, certainly including myself even though I didn’t realize it until months later when I was called out on my own BS by people very close to me.

“Cathy, you’re NOT ok. It’s time for a break.”

Ummm, say what? Hello?! I’m still working every day, running the errands, maintaining the house, making sure everyone has what they need day in and day out …

… during a global pandemic, that is.

As you will read in my book, there was a time when a psychiatrist forced me to look in the mirror at my tear-stained reflection and she asked me, tenderly:

“Cathy, what do YOU need?”

My, how I forgot this critical daily question. My, how I tend to forget it more often than I should.

Lesson revisited.

I stepped away to focus on strengthening and healing myself so I could return to doing more of what I love. As I reflected on what was most important on the “to do” list, after considering the encouragement of people close to me, and as I found myself visiting Dad to search for answers, it came to me.

Imprisoned No More could not wait any longer.

After some brainstorming with my publisher and dear friend Chou Hallegra, we quickly came up with my final subtitle: A Mother and Son Embrace Autism and Journey to Freedom.

The launch plan and final assembly of the manuscript has come together in warp speed. Mama Betty even got in on the act, serving as the final book editor. It’s fitting for so many reasons.

I felt in my heart — I KNOW in my heart — that 2020 needs our story desperately. Families impacted by autism around the world need this book to provide inspiration and hope.

The Pre-Order Party is scheduled for July 14, 2020 on The Caffeinated Advocate on Facebook. Be sure to RSVP and join the page for exclusive content including quotes, videos, interviews, special posts, and of COURSE a giveaway (or two)? This date was selected to pay tribute to my father, who passed away on July 14, 2009.

The book is set to release on August 23, 2020. Those who know me well know the significance of THIS date — HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOURS TRULY!

The revolution is ON. I hope you’ll join me as well as share with others who need to hear what I have to say.

Imprisoned No More: A Mother and Son Embrace Autism and Journey to Freedom RELEASES ON AUGUST 23, 2020.

I have tears and chills (even in 90 degree heat) typing this again.

Keep up to date with my latest happenings through writing and speaking by registering for updates. It’s EASY! Click on my contact form, and provide me with your name and email address. In the subject, write “SIGN ME UP!”

Ah, life indeed is what happens when you make other plans.

Wishing you all a Happy 4th of July — filled with burgers, iced tea, sparklers and great joy,
Cathy

Experiencing and Embracing Holland

“When your child received their diagnosis, were you ever handed the Welcome to Holland poem as rite of passage and token of introduction to this new and strange place filled with jargon, acronyms and medical appointments?

Did you find yourself in the land of worry, grief and unknown?

So did we, and then we realized that this new place can be pretty cool, and it’s filled with lots of amazing people. So in an effort to share the stories of families doing creative things as a result of their child’s diagnosis, our podcast was born!

Join us as we embark on this new leg of our journey to share with you how we, and a bunch of really inspiring people, are Embracing Holland!”

This is the exciting introduction to Embracing Holland, a new podcast that you can listen to on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and other places where you can catch your favorite hosts! Join Angie Auldridge and Megan Barrett, two powerhouse mama bears and unstoppable advocates who bravely share their stories, their energy and conversations with other amazing individuals and disability changemakers.

I am truly honored to have been asked to be their first guest to share excerpts of my journey and answer some insightful questions (and maybe a silly one at the end). Thank you ladies for reminding your audience, and our world, just how beautiful Holland can be. I’m grateful for your contributions to our community.

Give it a listen!

The Right and Wrong Reasons to Advocate

I have a message to send loud and clear.

A true, honest advocate fights for the child, adolescent or adult whom they are representing.

They will position themselves to partner with all parties involved – the parents and/or other caregivers, school personnel, aides, the therapists, the case managers – and will not set out to make enemies of any of the aforementioned parties or convince caregivers that this is an ideal strategy.

Sending a message that insinuates that the majority of teachers and therapists are out to make someone’s life miserable, are abusive, and/or are targeting their child is dangerous and careless.

I am not asleep, nor was I born yesterday, and I am WELL AWARE about devastating situations that occur in our world today.

Stories are rampant every day across social media that demonstrate terror, harm and bullying, and those scenarios will still happen despite our strongest efforts. We can’t stop it all — but we can do better, together, as partners.

More often, the case is that people don’t know what they don’t know. They weren’t educated.

Maybe they never met someone with ASD, let alone taught them. They don’t have the resources. They lack skills to best support someone with challenges or are differently-abled.

There may be some really good folks who want to do the right thing, but who may not have the support or buy in from everyone in their district or organization.

People don’t know … what they don’t know.

I guarantee you, 9 times out of 10, people WANT to learn from YOU as to how to ensure someone’s success and abundance.

A dear friend and longtime advocate in my community taught me long ago that we as advocates attend meetings first and foremost for the person whose voice we are trying to amplify until they may do so on their own.

I’m so grateful for that perspective and I will carry that with me forever.

I’m watching a small handful of folks out there claiming to be advocates who are charging ridiculous amounts of money and whose tactics are to pounce, attack, and charge full speed ahead like a bull in a china shop.

That’s not advocacy.

That’s not coaching.

That’s not empowerment.

It’s bullshit. Knock it off.

Don’t advocate because it’s a sexy, Instagrammable 2020 money-making entrepreneurial gig, boss babe.

I’m not against charging money for a service or product (I mean, I am an author for heaven’s sake).

However, there’s a difference between charging for a service and taking obvious advantage of someone’s vulnerability. Hundreds of dollars to write an email?!?! GTHOHWTBS (Google this for definition, kids might be watching my post) … I’ll write that email for you myself in 15 minutes flat.

Advocate because you want to change this world for the better and help someone to live their best life. THAT, is advocacy.

throws down the mic

Caff-Adv O-U-T.

This post was shared on Finding Cooper’s Voice on January 22, 2020.

Interested in writing for Finding Cooper’s Voice? LEARN MORE

Finding Cooper’s Voice is a safe, humorous, caring and honest place where you can celebrate the unique challenges of parenting a special needs child. Because you’re never alone in the struggles you face. And once you find your people, your allies, your village…all the challenges and struggles will seem just a little bit easier.

Welcome to their journey. You can also follow Finding Cooper’s Voice on Facebook, subscribe for exclusive videos, and subscribe to their newsletter.

Yes, You Can Sit With Me

Dear Autism Mamas Across the Globe,

I cannot tell you how much division I have experienced over the years both as a professional and as a mother – and it’s always with women.

Why, though?! This breaks my heart.

I thought by 2020, with the “#metoo” movements, with women’s empowerment and such a fierce passion for uplifting one another, that the days of “you can’t sit with us” and “as IF!” were bygones.

That’s sadly not always the case.

I’m so fortunate to have had opportunities over the years to lead focus groups, facilitate support groups, moderate forums and present to both small and large audiences. Don’t get me wrong, I have been part of – and are still part of today – tribes of women who would do anything to support one another.

~ They listen to you when you come home from an emotionally charged IEP meeting.

~ They know you are tired from your child emptying the kitchen cabinets for the umpteenth time to line up the pots and pans (and dumping the cereal on the floor along with it, because hello sensory moment).

~ They celebrate with you when your son says a new word.

~ They scream for joy when your daughter makes a new friend and receives an invite to her new friend’s birthday celebration.

For sure, these doting mamas outnumber the mamas who exclude others in one way or another. However, I’m still seeing mamas out there whose judgmental comments or deliberate actions clearly say to a mother in need, “You can’t sit with us.”

I hate it.

Ok, hate is a strong word, but truly my friends, I hate it.

I have been invited to many groups where I have either bowed out gracefully, or felt as if I had no choice but to call someone out and went out with a bang. I’ll usually leave after sending a private message to a moderator unless the situation is really intense. In such cases, I will tastefully call someone on their garbage (essentially telling them to stick their opinion where the sun doesn’t shine), click “Leave Group” and breathe a sigh of relief.

I see so much judgment, it’s unreal.

“Hmmmm, she looks a little bloated in the belly. Have you put her on a special diet, and tried XYZ vitamins? Oh, you did? You must not have tested it long enough.”

“Oh, he’s enrolled in ABA? ABA is just terrible. Terrible!”

“I see, so you use sign language and visual supports? Are you encouraging REAL communication? You don’t want him to become dependent and take the easy way out.”

“You shouldn’t consider that private school for her, even temporarily. You’re excluding her. Our support group is all about inclusion only, so maybe this place isn’t right for you.”

“You’re giving him WHAT medication? He’s so young. You shouldn’t be putting him on anything.”

“We’re meeting at the bar – all autism mamas drink! Oh, wait, you don’t drink? Oh. OHHHHHHHHHHHHHH. (insert awkward silence).”

“If she REALLY loved her child …” (YES, THIS TOO IS A TRUE STORY.)

I have seen it ALL, and these are just examples.

Listen, I’m not an idiot and I recognize not everyone is going to sing kumbaya while holding hands. But please, can we be a little kinder, and a little less Judgy McJudgy with other mamas JUST. LIKE. US?

We are all doing the best we can with what we’ve got. Just like our children (or our adult children, in my case), we are using the tools from our toolbox in the moment the best way we know how.

Advice is welcomed, but bullying and preying on vulnerable women (JUST LIKE US!) cannot be tolerated.

There’s also room for you to be in more than tribe, mama! It’s ok to take part in many groups that you connect with on a different level or in different ways. Maybe you’ll have some overlap between groups, and introduce ladies to one another, maybe you won’t. It is ok – more than ok! – to run in different circles.

What isn’t ok, is closing that circle off to someone who desperately calls out for help or needs some direction? Why? Because I guarantee that you have been “that mom.” If your group is knowingly not the best fit, or perhaps inconvenient for whatever reason, please guide Crying, Haggered, I Haven’t Showered for Four Days, Am Living On My Child’s Gluten-Free Leftovers That He Refused to Try and I Have One Hour to Clean Before the Therapist Comes Mom to someone who can help her.

Be the difference.

Be the change.

Be kind.

I’m glad most women aren’t like this, but I hope this post reaches those who may have made a snide comment or two in their day.

Mamas, you’re allowed to have opinions, and can express them with grace and grit without hurting anyone. You’re also allowed to sit at other tables. But if you can’t find one, if you’ve been pushed away, or are simply seeking some advice and a friendly ear …

Pull up a chair. The Caffeinated Advocate has plenty of room. I also have coffee.

Chats (and Coffee) with Community Leaders – My Growing Podcast List

“You speak, I listen.” 

Thanks again to my dear friend Michelle Sedlak, the founder of Leading Education and Advocacy for Families (LEAF) in Pittsburgh who has served as a true advocacy champion in the Pittsburgh community for years for saying these four words to me. These simple words will always remind me of who I am, what I stand for, and the work I have left to do so I may leave this world someday better than I found it.

Have you tuned into my podcast interviews and/or FB Lives? I’d love for you to give them a listen and hey, contact me to tell me what you think.

The On-Air Advocate (Tammy Flynn):
“When the Bus Stops Coming”

http://theonairadvocate.libsyn.com/when-the-bus-stops-coming

Xceptional Leaders Podcast (Mai Ling Chan):
“Autism Parent Takes Advocacy to the Next Level, with Catherine Hughes”

https://xceptionaled.com/autism-parent-takes-advocacy-to-the-next-level-with-catherine-hughes/

FB Live – Amorose Family Chiropractic (Drs. Lucas and Kelly Amorose, and Baker the Beagle!)
https://www.facebook.com/amorosefamilychiro/videos/832770483743617/

The Chou Hallegra Podcast (Chou Hallegra):
“Women Making History: Interview With Cathy & Christina”
(An interview featuring me with my colleague, colleague and BFF Christina Abernethy!)

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/women-making-history-interview-with-cathy-christina/id1269261753?i=1000433643964

Autism Stories, by Autism Personal Coach (Doug Blecher):
“Autism Stories: Catherine Hughes”

https://anchor.fm/autism-personal-coach/episodes/Autism-Stories-Cathy-Hughes-e206pk

Voices of Hope (Kristine Irwin):
“Coffee and Consent: Episode 1 with Catherine Hughes”

https://voicesofhope15.wordpress.com/2018/04/03/coffee-consent-episode-1/

COMING SOON:

2 Autism Truths and 1 Lie with United in Autism’s Julie Hornok
I Am Enough in Christ with Infinitely More Life’s Shawnee Penkacik

Want to book me for your podcast or Facebook Live series?

Contact me and let’s connect! I have a few spots left for the last quarter of 2019, and I am now booking for early 2020.

Abundant love to you all – and remember, it’s self-care Sunday! Be good to yourself. Empty cups cannot pour. (Speaking of … where’s my coffee? Sigh. Maybe my Keurig will brew my mug and deliver my mug to ME. Hey, a girl can dream, or simply be silly).

~ Cathy

We Were All Made for More

I was made for more … and so were YOU!

Learn about my latest collaboration released yesterday just in time for World Mental Health Day! I was one of the 16 men and women who came together and contributed vulnerable chapters about our struggles with mental health, addiction, sexual abuse, suicidal thoughts and/or other traumas. All of us share a common bond – we are rising above our circumstances, and we shared these stories in the hopes of reducing stigma, helping others feel less alone, and encouraging people to seek help with what pains them.

I am so thankful for this extraordinairy opportunity. Chou Hallegra, thank you for choosing me as your editor-in-chief for Made for More. I love you, my dear friend! (So, are you ready to do this again next month?)

You can find Made for More on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Scribd, Kobo and Playster. Print copies will be available soon, and I will be sharing an order form in the near future across my platforms.

Thank you so much for your support of my work and my mission.

Wishing you abundant love as you rise above YOUR circumstances,
Your Caffeinated Advocate

An Xceptional Discussion Between Xceptional Leaders

What does it mean to be The Caffeinated Advocate? I’m going to tell you! Lean in and listen to my latest podcast interview with the AUmazing Mai Ling Chan of Xceptional ED on the Xceptional Leaders Podcast! I think our time together was pretty doggone “xceptional” but I’ll let you be the judge!

Listen to the full episode here: http://bit.ly/2LVJT4x

Hitting the Open Road

“I take to the open road – healthy, free, the world before me.”
~ Walt Whitman

Christian, a 21YO autistic adult, hits the road after we purchased his first car this past weekend.

I was sitting at the Penn Hills PennDOT Center, praying with my eyes closed, but peeking constantly to glance at the time on my phone. Chris and Mike, the nice-enough road test administrator who looked like a cross between Rob Zombie and Jesus, had been out for almost 20 minutes. They left around 3:20pm, as Mike was running a few minutes behind schedule. He called us to his desk a few minutes prior and asked us for our paperwork.

He then asked Chris, “you ready to hit the road, kid?”

Chris nervously nodded and said, “yes, sir.”

Away they went with Snowflake (for those who don’t know by now, that is the name of my Jeep – a 2018 Renegade, and she’s a girl, thank you) and there I was sitting and waiting not so patiently.

It took Chris a year and a half to pass the written permit test. I believe it took six tries, hell maybe it was seven, I don’t recall. What I can tell you is that after Chris’s sixteenth birthday is when we first obtained a copy of the written manual. He studied the book off and on for years. He always had the desire to drive, but wasn’t sure about the actual driving part. Loving everything from Thomas the Tank Engine to traffic lights and telephone poles to Google Maps, from a young age Chris was simply a human GPS. I never had any doubt that if he ever obtained his license, he would be able to navigate his way around our area and beyond – and far better than I!

After several failed attempts at the written test, Chris decided he needed a break to study more, truly understand the material and move past his test anxiety. He kept missing the same questions over and over – so frustrating!

He downloaded the app for the PA Practice Drivers Test and began to use that to memorize the answers to the exam questions. In a small planner given to us by our neighbor, he started making written reminders as well as reminders in his Google Calendar to study each and every day so he had frequent visuals that also helped make him accountable for his studying. We had to return to the doctor’s office to renew his physical because so much time had passed.

Two more attempts were made, and those same nagging questions were missed.

We finally reached the day where he went into the center, bound and determined to pass. And by golly, he took double the time for the exam and he did it. He passed!

It was a Sunday afternoon around 3pm when we first drove to the local school parking lot and we switched seats. He was quite nervous, but slowly (at about five miles an hour) started circling the lot. Braking definitely needed work. And when I say work, no offense to my boy whatsoever but I felt like my stomach was at the other end of the lot!

Over the next few weeks, we kept driving around the school lots, and one day he had the courage to drive home from the school (which is only a two minute trip).

He had money saved, and he asked me about paying for professional lessons. I did what I typically do (mama bear powers, activate!), and that was to ask around and research driving instructors in our area. Recommended to us was A1 Driving School in North Huntingdon. I asked Chris if he wanted me to call to set up his first lesson and he told me no. He asked for the number and said he would do it himself. At the time, he was in between jobs and just starting his volunteer gig at Kane Regional. He definitely had time to make the call and time to take lessons. He believed he could, and so he did.

He was taking lessons and also driving with me either to drop himself off for volunteering (and later to work once Kane hired him in March), or to the store, or to appointments. Now, it took a while before he tackled major highways or the parkway due to his fear of lane changes, but in time even that came to him.

Truly, time was our biggest solution – time accompanied by great patience.

The more he practiced and the more he faced his fears head on, the more he learned that he was capable and in control. He had moments where someone would cut him off or come a bit too close with a turn, but I reminded him that this could happen to ANY driver diagnosis or not. I told him that had nothing to do with having autism. Some people just should not be on the road, I would tell him.

He started focusing more on parking, especially parallel parking which is his mama’s nemesis (even today after driving for almost 25 years). I admittedly failed not once, not twice, but three times as a teen because I just couldn’t get it right. I still think that to this day I only passed my test because I was wearing a cute purple leather mini and looked like a pinup girl, impressing the younger instructor. Whatev.

He downloaded an app from State Farm, called Steer Clear (which is available on iTunes and GooglePlay) to complete their courses, obtain driving tips and more. It also qualified him for a future discount on our policy.

Chris had a lesson on the Fourth of July, when he happened to be off and Todd happened to have his morning free. They practiced for an hour at the center, using the barrels for parking and running the road test course a few times. They came home sooner than I thought. Todd got out of his car and said to me, “you know, I don’t quite understand his diagnosis but I do understand his personality and recognize he gets anxious. But he knows what he is doing, and he is ready for the test. The only one that will hold him back, is him.”

I blinked back tears when I went back in the house. What Todd was saying to me was exactly what every teacher and therapist said to me over the years – that the one holding Chris back was Chris himself. It was that lack of self-confidence and fear of being different and/or not enough that was at times quite crippling.

Chris asked me, “can we log on and schedule my test?” And so, we did.

It was almost 3:45pm and my nerves were s-h-o-t. I saw Mike walk in to take the next person waiting to test, but I didn’t see Chris. Soon, I saw him come through the doors, red-eyed and white-faced.

“Noooooo!” I thought. He tried SO hard, and he wants this so much! This can’t be happening.

He came up to me, and I slowly turned towards him. “Did you …. ?” I trailed off.

He nodded, looking almost shocked, tears in his eyes. “I passed, Mom.”

I jumped up and hugged him, probably scaring him out of a decade of life. As of recent years, he is not super affectionate with me which I am used to. He went over to have his photo taken – a photo that shows him smiling from ear to ear. I called Mama Betty, bawling and not caring who saw me. I said “this is for everyone with a disability who thinks they can’t do something.” The woman who was sitting next to me smiled when I was off of the phone, winked at me and said “congrats, mom!” I don’t know if she quite understood the magnitude of what happened, but I was grateful just the same.

The photo I shared across my platforms and groups went viral – in fact, it is still being shared and we continue to get comments and private messages. What meant to the most to me was that teens and adults with autism and/or their caregivers were responding that his story was ultimately giving them hope.

Isn’t that why we share our stories to begin with? It makes my heart full.

Over the next few days, Chris began asking to make trips, first to a Bible study at his new church (a group of gents from 20-70 years of age), then to Subway, then to GNC to pick up vitamins, and then Giant Eagle in Monroeville (twice the size of ours with a Nature’s Basket) to buy groceries. The one evening we had a terrible downpour, and he knew enough to pull over, text me from where he was (ONCE PARKED), not drive through flooding and wait it out. I was so proud of his responsibility!

I had seen a Jeep Liberty on the lot (actually, two) at Jim Shorkey via their website that seemed affordable enough, so I made an appointment to visit after Chris was done at work for the day. Rather than look at the two older vehicles with higher miles, our salesman named Brian asked if we would consider a Patriot. We test drove a 2013 with 85K miles, but it seemed like the transmission was going so that was a no-go. |

Brian said to us, “you know, I have a fantastic 2016 with only 45K miles and all the bells and whistles.” We went outside again, and lo and behold, with the exception of being a High Altitude vs. a Latitude (which means very little difference in features and opti0ns) it was like my Smoky (the Jeep I traded in exactly one year prior)! I laughed out loud. Brian asked “is something wrong?” I could barely get out words because I was laughing so hard “it’s like we’d be buying my old car back, only this is in far better shape because I beat mine into the ground.” We went for a spin and Chris was very happy with how it handled and rode (which I had no doubts about).

I winced when we returned to the dealership. “Brian, I’ve got excellent credit but I just bought my new vehicle last year. I’m not sure even with Chris’s income added that I’ll get approved. And these payments … I’m not sure that he can do something this new or this nice for his first car.” Learning Chris’s story and background as he and other staff had seen the now popular photo on the Facebook group “Across Westmoreland,” he said, “you let me and my manager worry about that. He has worked hard and he really deserves this. Let’s make this happen.”

With very little bargaining, we were able to get the payments to a reasonable monthly amount for him and we were approved in two hours.

What a great day, indeed! Thanks, Brian!

The look on Mama Betty’s face when we came home with two vehicles was priceless. Within an hour after eating dinner, he drove to Best Buy to look for a backup camera to install and also a phone charger. He also set up his Bluetooth so he could safely use his phone on the road if needed.

We have never been a two-vehicle household. This is brand new territory! I have immense joy for Chris and his newfound freedom – admittedly, along with the relief that I no longer have to worry about my own schedule adjustments and that I have an extra person who can get to my mother in an emergency if I am out of town.

Let’s get back to that freedom thing though, shall we? I am asked so often about what Chris does for socialization outside of work or what I want to see for him.

It’s not about me – it’s about him and his desires and what makes HIS heart happy. I don’t and will never push for him to be with “peers his own age.” I haven’t done this since his childhood. He was who taught me at a young age (his first ever IEP meeting) that forcing him into social groups with young men who only shared a common diagnosis was wrong. I had to let him choose his hobbies and interests. Yes, he did spend a lot of time alone and yes, sometimes that depressed him. He spoke about that often with his therapist. However, both she and I found as he grew older that same lesson rang true – he needed to make his own choices and learn from them. He knew that obtaining his license would give him more opportunities. Now that he fought to achieve this goal, he now has the opportunity to spend time with others OR be alone. Isn’t that what we ALL do, diagnosis or not?

In the past few days, he has driven to a friend’s house to have dinner with his family, went running at a local trail, shopped for new shoes, and swam laps at a local pool. I am so happy for him.

Tonight, he’s off to the mens’ group at church while I enjoy dinner with Dave during my “staycation” from work. On Friday, Chris returns to work and may be discussing a different schedule that may finally lead to full-time status and health benefits. All of my limbs are crossed, that is for sure. If you don’t mind, keep a good thought for him!

As I have shared before, it is Chris who was quoted in the final school newsletter of his senior year “never let a diagnosis or disability hold you back.” He’s definitely staying true to his own words of advice.

We could all learn from his … roadmap.