By Barb Arland-Fye
Two potential roommates with cognitive disabilities sat on either end of the same couch and, prompted by one’s parents and the other’s caregiver, asked get-acquainted questions. They’d participated together in a few recreational activities, but hadn’t gotten to know each other.
“What’s your favorite chore?” Eric asked my son, Colin. “Vacuuming,” he responded. Colin didn’t ask Eric about his favorite chore, so I did. “I like to clean the bathroom,” Eric answered slowly and deliberately, a smile always present on his face. We learned that both men like to eat pizza, hamburgers and French fries, go to the library, read books, watch movies and visit the park. Both look forward to seeing the daily newspaper each morning, too.
My heart welled with tenderness to watch these two adults — so innocent, so trusting — converse. I gently reminded Colin to look at Eric when asking him questions. Each is in need of a new roommate, but would their living together in an apartment be a good match? My husband, Steve, and I believe it would, but I’ve learned to pray for God’s will to be done in this situation and not necessarily mine. The men themselves seem eager to have roommates, but are anxious about what changes that might bring.
Sharing an apartment with one individual fits the pattern Colin’s grown accustomed to, but he and his last roommate were incompatible. Eric asks his caregiver, beseechingly, whether he’ll be able to remain in his apartment. He asks her twice. It is his decision, but he counts on her for guidance. “We’ll see,” she assures him.
Even for typical adults, the search for a new roommate can be an anxiety provoking process. Good communication skills are essential to a smooth transition and successful roommate experience. I learned that lesson during college. For an individual with autism, like Colin, expressing thoughts and emotions is a work in progress.
Sometimes we’ve questioned the wisdom of apartment living for Colin, but Steve and I realize this rite of passage to adulthood helps him grow in independence and self-sufficiency to whatever level he is capable of achieving. Living in an apartment, with assistance, requires him to come out of his shell and interact with others beside family members. He needs to have a life enriched by a wider and more diverse network of people with whom to interact. The days are long gone, thank God, when people with cognitive disabilities were shuttered away in institutions and seldom seen in public. Typical people were frightened when they saw a person with cognitive disabilities acting out. Empathy happens when we walk together on life’s journey.
Some older parents I know have adult children with cognitive disabilities living at home. I wonder what will happen to those individuals when their parents pass on or become disabled. Living as independently as possible comes with risks, but no one’s life is perfect or risk-free. With the grace of God, Colin is living in an apartment with assistance and learning how to cope with a world outside of his insular one.