12/02/2014 10:23 am ET Updated Feb 01, 2015

Hope For a Full Life For Those With Autism

Susan McCorkindale

Last week, we celebrated my older son's birthday. As I sat in the restaurant, watching him hold his girlfriend's hand and joke with his friends as they joined us at the table, I thought I'd cry. Not because his 23rd birthday heralds my 53rd (OK, a little bit because his 23rd birthday heralds my 53rd), but because of all the progress he's made.

When Casey was 12, his dad and I took him to The Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities at the University of North Carolina. For a day and a half, a group of doctors, psychologists and educators conducted a variety of tests and evaluations. They were terrific with Casey and us; patient, encouraging and supportive. They also had a sense of humor, thank God, or else this mom might've gotten a not so social call from Social Services.

"Can you name a red flower?" the evaluator asked Casey as my husband and I watched through a one-way mirror.

"A rose," our son responded.

My husband and I high-fived. Way to go, Casey!

"Good. Now, how about a cold food?" he continued.

"Ice cream," Casey replied.

Stu and I elbowed each other in the ribs. "He is so your son," I teased.

"Great," the evaluator said, smiling. "Just one last question and we're done for the day, OK?"

Casey nodded.

"Can you name a white drink?"

Together, Stu and I, along with the assistant sitting with us, whispered the word "milk" at the exact moment Casey shouted, "Wine!" and then added, as the evaluator cracked up, the assistant and my husband got hysterical, and I tried to hide, "My mom loves white wine!"

I needed a glass when, in the end, they diagnosed Casey with high-functioning autism. Not because my husband and I were stunned, but because we were relieved to finally, for the first time in the kid's entire life, have some insight into why he rocked, melted down in school and at birthday parties and barely spoke.

I recall that when we left, with tools to try, contacts to make and promises (fulfilled) of reports to follow, we were also given a few words of warning. We were told that, most likely, Casey would never drive, go to college or achieve any real level of independence. He would be our "forever child." Those words were so hard to hear. So heartbreaking.

And so wrong.

Despite the many and myriad challenges Casey's autism has presented, and the losses life has put in his path (his dad passed away from cancer just two months before his high school graduation), he has persevered and made the kind of progress that would make any parent proud.

Today he has his driver's license and a job he enjoys. He's thinking about going back to college for a degree in education, and lives on his own in a one-bedroom apartment that he's decorated with a great rug, a huge, comfy La-Z-Boy reclining sofa and a flat screen TV. He has friends over, he's learning to cook and he's in love.

Sounds like a pretty independent life to me, and it's enough to make me cry with happiness and hope for him, and others just like him.