He Unpacked the Bag

  Many of you know that I have an 18 year-old son, Andy, who has severe autism – it was the subject of my play Falling, which premiered last August here at Mustard Seed Theatre.

Andy plans his life. Far in advance. He has 8 stacks of 8 videos each, and not only can he tell you the names of all the movies in each stack (in order from top to bottom) but he can tell you on which day he is planning to watch them.

See, life is pretty scary when your brain is wired like his – so knowing what’s ahead is a comfort.

During the week, when he goes to his summer program, he takes 2 DVD’s and 2 videos with him. The stacks of 8 videos are for the weekend, or special days when there’s no other activity.

So imagine my dismay when I came down last Tuesday morning to find that he’d packed his bag with 8 videos and was ready to embark on a “special day” outing. I assured him that it was Summer Program day, and he gently walked me to the calendar, where I saw what had happened. I had written “Summer Program” on Monday and then drawn an arrow pointing through the days until Friday. It was perfectly clear to me, of course, but Andy interpreted it to mean that he only went to the summer program on Monday.

When I explained to him what had happened, and wrote “Summer Program” on Tuesday, he took a pen and crossed it out. (“No fair changing the rules,” I imagined him thinking.) He was getting agitated, and my husband Steve and I began to gear ourselves up for an aggressive incident. I took him to his room, wrote out a note explaining the schedule for the week, handed it to him, and said “Read that and think about it. I’ll be outside the door.”

I closed the door. Steve and I braced ourselves for the screams that would start, indicating his frustration and an explosive meltdown.

It was quiet.

After a minute or so of quiet, there came a small knock on the door. We jumped.

“Mom will open the door,” Andy said.

“Yes I will,” I replied. “And then what will you do?”

“Andy will go to Summer Program.”

Suspicious looks were exchanged. “Is he setting us up … we’ll open the door and he’ll come out swinging?”

“Andy, how do you feel about going to Summer Program,” I asked cautiously.


I opened the door. A smiling face greeted me. He walked down the stairs and went to his bag packed with the 8 videos.

He unpacked the bag.

He UNPACKED the bag.

(Here is where those of you who know a person with autism are doing your own amazed happy dance, saying, “He unpacked the bag? He unpacked the bag!”)

He repacked for Summer Program. Where he went and had a great day.

! ! !

Most parents watch for milestones like going to Kindergarten, getting a driver’s license.

Extreme Parents (like us) watch for the day he “unpacks the bag.” He met an obstacle in his path, and instead of doing all in his power to destroy the obstacle, he changed his path.

And do I know why? Maybe the new medication that has helped him focus and think more clearly? Maybe the raging hormones of his early teens are waning? Maybe it was just time for the brain to mature that little bit more?

So after days of simply being excited about this amazing event (or non-event, if you think of it a certain way), I began to realize that there’s a lesson for me in all of this.

To unpack my bag. Metaphorically.

It’s the lesson Tami finally learned in FALLING – that sometimes you have to let go. Of the plan. Of the dream. Of the battle for control.

Sometimes I just need to unpack and repack and face the new plan with a smile.


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