The first time I went to an IEP meeting was in 2006.
My son Jack had just been diagnosed with autism. He was barely 2 years old.
I sat in a folding chair. I remember feeling nervous. I wasn’t sure where to put my hands. The room was stuffy.
We flipped through the reports. We reviewed goals and a timeline of dates. It dawned on me that IEP stands for Individualized Education Plan.
As the meeting came to a close, I felt a quiet unease.
I realized for over an hour, not a single person in that small, overheated room uttered my son’s name even once. He was simply a collection of characteristics on paper.
Limited eye contact.
Lack of joint attention.
Autism spectrum disorder.
Jack is 17 now.
Last week, he was accepted into college.
After months of paperwork, research, phone calls, rejections, more paperwork, even more research, we found the right fit.
Located in the heart of a small city, it is a residential building with a lot of staff and support. He will live in a suite with five other students. They ski in winter. They have a full kitchen.
The building is within walking distance to three colleges where he can audit classes. He is thinking of restaurant management, or maybe broadcasting.
He can walk to the grocery store. He can walk to the movies. He can walk to get tacos.
He does love tacos, this boy of mine.
RELATED: This boy Jack
My son with autism got into college.
And just like that, a ceiling became a floor.
It’s been years since the wooden table and the stuffy conference room.
Years of chasing him through parking lots, walking him back to bed, explaining him to everyone I knew, packing headphones for fireworks, setting timers so he’d sit through dinner.
Years of meetings, and teams, and reports, and plans.
Years of reminding people to say his name. Please, say his name.
Now, my son is going to college.
I am equally thrilled and terrified.
Perhaps it seems impossible to have both feet so firmly planted in opposite emotional states, but I do.
Desperately, I long to hold onto this moment of victory like a dewdrop in the palm of my hand. I want to enjoy the breathing space.
Yet when it comes to autism, there is no breathing space. There are only next steps, more phone calls, a ticking clock, time you wish you could slow.
RELATED: I know why my son has autism
That’s when he leaves, this boy who I chased and walked and explained.
It feels so far away, doesn’t it? Especially now, in February, as a thick white snow carpets the frozen ground.
Where will he get his hair cut?
What if he doesn’t get along with his roommate?
How is it possible that in five short months, as small children run through salty waves and the summer trees stretch tall and green, my son will pack his things and move out of this house?
These are the questions that plague me at 4 in the morning. These are the reasons I can’t fall asleep at night.
My son got into college. The paper boy of meetings passed has exceeded every expectation. I am unspeakably proud.
The truth is, this is a triumph for all of us.
It is a triumph for those of us who chase, and hope, and dream, and try.
Who sit in stuffy rooms and worry the diagnosis is all anyone sees.
Who bring photos of chubby-cheeked toddlers to the meetings, and share stories of sleepless nights and grocery store chases.
Who know, deep down inside, there will always be more ceilings, until you’re blinded by drywall.
It is a triumph to all of us who are raising a whirling dervish, a wild-child, a game-changer.
Who live this unexpected life with reckless grace, radical mercy, and a tender resilience.
It is for every single one of us who are bringing words to life in the shape of a child.
The truth is, he is on his own hero’s journey — one that is full of small steps forward, tiny steps backward, and a wildly brave heart.
“For Mom. I got in. I got into college.”
I am going to miss him the way a dark night misses the daylight.
His name is Jack.
Related TODAY video from 2017 featuring Carrie Cariello and her son, Jack:
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