Doors Opening

By Glen Finland
Sunday, May 10, 2009

We had spent the end of last summer riding the Metro -- my son David and I -- not so much going anywhere, just riding from stop to stop. Counting the look-alike stations between Clarendon and Metro Center, hugging the right side of the escalator to switch to the Red Line, then coming up for air in the river of humanity that is midday Chinatown.

So it goes, when your handsome 21-year-old -- a rangy six-footer with a sexy 5 o'clock shadow -- has the mind of a good-natured 9-year-old. Pervasive developmental by his swinging an imaginary baseball bat whenever he's really happy. Feet squared, wrists piled up high on his right shoulder, and swoosh! The impulse reflects an open innocence that's way too friendly when it comes to strangers. At Eighth and F streets NW, when a homeless man asks him for change, David pulls out his wallet and says, "Okay, how much?"

But if he could learn to ride the Metro, my husband and I believed, then he could travel to a job site; and when he locked down that job, he could pay his rent. With a job and an apartment, he would have a real life. And who knows? Maybe even find somebody other than his dad and me to love him well into the future. It was a goal we could all agree on. David swung his imaginary bat whenever we talked about it.

So at the end of the summer, David and I got cozy with all the different Metro routes. We visited the zoo and met the guy who scrubs the elephants' backs. We surfaced in Chinatown, where he walked around with a starry-eyed look on his face because of "the pretty Korean girls." One morning, we hopped off at Smithsonian Station for him to run to the Lincoln Memorial while I waited on a bench in a light downpour. (Despite his early diagnosis of cerebral palsy, David can run like a deer.) At Arlington Cemetery Station, we followed the path to Section 60, where we sat beside a 19-year-old Marine's grave and talked about the war in Iraq. David would like to be a soldier, and he wasn't interested in my political musings. Instead, he wondered if the soldiers had lived good lives before they died. Another day, we raced up the escalators toward the wrong train and ended up in Shady Grove, then turned around and doubled back. We didn't have anywhere we had to be that day. No worries.

It stayed that way until the August afternoon when David told me he was ready to go it alone. We both knew this was coming; it was, in fact, exactly what we'd been working toward. I just hadn't realized he'd be ready sooner than I was.


David was born in 1987. He was a failure-to-thrive baby who spit up half his birth weight during his first months before doctors diagnosed reflux and mild cerebral palsy. He did not walk until he was 3. When David was 5, a neurologist attributed his developmental delays to a combination of autism and static encephalopathy -- a brain pause that impairs intelligence -- like a circuit misfire in the brain. Imagine driving through the mountains, hitting static on the radio and suddenly losing the music. Sometimes, David loses the music.

But by the time he turned 7, every doctor we saw offered us a different diagnosis. A specialist added on a mean mix of ADHD; obsessive-compulsive disorder; and Tourette's syndrome, a neurological disorder of involuntary and repetitive motor and vocal tics. The tics include eye-blinking, head or shoulder jerking, facial grimacing and, in David's case, snorting sounds often combined with an upper body twist, a hop and a punch to his own mouth. Just watching this child sleep could wear me out.

By age 15, David had grown tall, with high cheekbones, and was so thin I could count every notch along his spine. His twisting body kept him busy corralling the tics that jerked him around and sometimes burst out of his throat without warning. Once, during a National Theatre matinee of "Cats," his tics nearly got us tossed out of our third-row seats. The usher said David was distracting the cats.


Even with the difficulty in conveying his thoughts, David made it clear he wanted to be included in the mainstream activities at his public high school -- and not just the special education program. But teenagers have their own hierarchy, and even the most accepting ones play by their peers' social rules. The mascot syndrome revealed itself in well-intentioned pats and hugs from passing acquaintances in the halls, but the phone never rang for him at home. In 2005, he would turn 18. There had never been any hope of college or SAT tests. What would happen after high school?

The school psychologist recommended a relatively new approach -- an expensive, two-year program called the College Living Experience. The downside was its faraway location in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. However, it had a residential component geared toward independent living, teaching task completion, money management and social skills to developmentally disabled young adults. So in 2006 -- after two decades of navigating Fairfax County's murky special education system, and investigating expensive drug therapy and psychiatric care -- my husband, Bruce, and I enrolled David in CLE, which is adjacent to the sprawling Broward College campus in South Florida.

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