Balancing Risk and Autonomy

Parents of vulnerable sons and daughters with disabilities understand life’s everyday risks at the molecular level. Worry flows in our bloodstream. When childhood wanes and adulthood unfurls, risks, opportunities and uncertainties grow exponentially. It’s tempting to pretend that life’s environment hasn’t altered, but it has.

The prospect of adulthood entices all citizens, with its illusion of unbridled choice. What child doesn’t dream of making their own decisions? Sadly, a sense of autonomy is more dream than reality for most people with developmental disabilities.

Our parental desire to protect and safeguard remains strong, regardless of age. Opting to cocoon our vulnerable sons and daughters carries its own risks and shrinks access to life’s opportunities. Daring to step back and loosen one’s parental grip, in the face of vulnerability is scary. Yet stretching and dealing with everyday consequences builds capacity for independence, responsibility and resilience.

Fostering generational autonomy and accountability helps snip the apron strings of dependence and keep resentment at bay. Cultivating bravery is key to fostering capacity. Sometimes things work out well and other times, not so much. But isn’t that true of every life?

Over the decades I’ve snipped apron strings and tightly knotted others during stormy weather. Stepping back to gain perspective, recalibrate and share responsibility is an ongoing process. The learning curve never ends.

I routinely remind myself that my son is the architect of his life. My role is to offer unconditional love, support as needed and avoid offering unsolicited advice. And therein lies the never-ending challenge.

Susan Dunnigan

January 2024