One year we were traveling home from a car trip, and we made a side trip so that dad could spend a few days with some friends. We dropped him off and continued home.

This meant that I was traveling alone with our son for a portion of our drive. Naturally, I needed a navigator and before I could ask, he volunteered.

I was delighted, and relieved because there were going to be some tricky freeway interchanges and I was not keen on trying to drive and read the directions at the same time.

There was a few minutes of silence while his dad and I worked out where he was going to be dropped off, and then my son spoke up again.

“I will need to learn how to read a map.”

Way to go with the executive function skills, son!

When we stopped to drop his dad off, we got out of the car and I walked him through the map and the written instructions, so he could see the route we were going to take both visually and step-by-step.

Some of the abbreviations were unfamiliar to him, state route numbers and interstates, but he never wavered, never sounded doubtful about taking on this task.

He wanted to be the navigator.

Soon we were back on the road. He immediately started reading the instructions out loud and double checking where we were, which direction we were going, and how far we had come.

When there was a long stretch between new directions, he would play on his screen. He routinely popped his head up to check where we were and see if new directions were needed.

He read each direction slowly and carefully, and it was easy to plan for each interchange. He was a natural.

With his volunteering to navigate, I could see into the future.

After my son’s diagnosis on the autism spectrum, his dad and I had been the navigators for him, learning as much as we could about autism, knowing the route we hoped he would take, and carefully plotting a course that would lovingly and positively get him to a good place. It had been our jobs as his parents, while he was young and developmentally immature.

As he grew older, matures, and better understood where he wanted to go and what he wanted to do, he would more and more take over setting and navigating the course to meet his needs.

He would speak up more, at home and at school, becoming an integral part of his IEP meetings and helping to guide his own path.

It was a non-linear process, with gives and takes as time moved on – one time he would take the lead, next time he would defer to his parents.

Eventually, with the goal of independence, he would take the lead all the time, and we as his parents would fade to the background to confer and advise as needed.

The Navigator would then be reading and following his own life’s map.