Home Alone: Autism And The Not-Empty Nest


My husband and I recently returned from bringing our daughter to college. She’s our second college-bound child and the first to be far enough away to use a plane to get to and from school. I am excited for her, and nervous. Probably a lot like how she’s feeling. She’s in a place where I truly believe she can soar, and I hope she does. But I also know that college can feel overwhelming, and I hope that feeling, if and when it comes, passes quickly.

Our eldest will be back in grad school this fall. He’ll only be a train ride away, but away nonetheless. I believe he too can soar, but I’m not sure he believes that, at least right now. Like his sister, he brings a unique mind and character to school and in his case, to an environment that probably prizes the kind of grind approach to work and achievement that is anathema to this kid in every imaginable way.

That leaves my husband and me home alone–with our autistic son. Noah was away at camp for three weeks this summer, and we forgot. We forgot how grating he can be, how flat-out annoying. We’d been given a reprieve from his constant questions about what he’s doing tomorrow, next week, next month, next summer.

I’m not sure ten seconds passed when Noah came home before the silly talk started in earnest. I looked at my husband. “We didn’t cherish those three weeks nearly enough.” And truth be told, it’s not an enticing prospect to be home alone with him and having our other kids away. Of course they should be away. They have lives to lead, friends to make, new things to learn. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss having them around to offset their brother’s crazy, his incessant questioning, and his ability to annoy the bejeezus out of us.

Unlike some parents, we can step out and leave Noah home for a while, so we do get a break. He’s also helpful to me at home—with doing laundry, with loading and unloading the dishwasher, with putting the leashes on the dogs—but the constant Q&A (a miserable substitute for actual conversation), and Noah’s inability to have consistently normal interactions, is just exhausting. And sometimes incredibly depressing.

I’m working hard to build a life for Noah in our new home, but right now, his life is like a puzzle with most of the pieces missing. It mostly falls to me to be his companion, his scheduler, his entertainment. And truth be told, there are times when I just can’t stand having those jobs, when I wish Noah could safely cross the street himself to get to his fitness class…which is across the street from where we live. I wish he could or would suggest an appropriate activity or way to spend a day. No, not asking if we can go to an aquarium in Minnesota, but maybe suggesting that we go to a movie, do some shopping, hang out in the park—something that isn’t weird, or requires travel outside the state.

Sometimes, I think we’ve failed. Badly. I like to try to focus on all the things Noah can do, all the upsides about him that other parents might kill for. He’s affectionate. He’s loved and loving. He has speech. He is physically in tact. He can travel by plane, train and automobile. He can eat out in restaurants, go to museums, and even to Broadway shows now and again. He is without artifice or malice. He’s neither jealous nor competitive. His soul is pure. There are many reasons, as with my other kids, to love Noah deeply and without reservation. But still. To be home alone with Noah is to be…home alone. And something about that feels deeply—perhaps irredeemably—crushing.

Nina Mogilnik’s professional career has encompassed work in the philanthropic, nonprofit and government sectors. Nina serves on the board of Birch Family Services, an organization dedicated to educating and supporting into adulthood individuals with a range of developmental disabilities. Nina is also an avocational writer, and has had a number of essays about her experiences dealing with her father’s Alzheimer’s and her son’s autism published in Haddasah Magazine and in The Jewish Week.  She was recently invited to blog for The Times of Israel and has been contributing her take on life and current events.  Nina’s proudest accomplishment — and hardest job by far — has been as a mother. Nina has degrees in philosophy from Union College (B.A.) and from the University of Chicago (M.Phil). She lives with her husband and kids (human and canine) in New York City.