This spring, we are coming up on twelve years since my son was diagnosed with autism.
A dozen years ago, under the pressure of trying to understand this new world, it was impossible to imagine that I would see some perks in being the parent of an almost 15-year-old with autism. But, talking with some newbie parents recently made me appreciate a little more where we are now.
Don’t get me wrong. I still stress a lot about how to provide my child with the right supports, which he still needs in multiple areas. We worry over his future. But, compared to those early years when I was running him to therapies 24-7, thrust into this new field that I knew nothing about prior to his diagnosis? It’s better now.
Here are six ways that being the parent of an autistic teenager is a bit better than being the parent of a newly diagnosed toddler.
1- Change happens: Now that we’re past the craziest phase of pre-teen hormonal upheaval (God, I hope that statement is true), I can more calmly report that, despite all of the developmental delays, our kids still grow up. His teenage-hood has brought changes for both of us—beyond the fact that he’s becoming damned handsome while I’m fighting off wrinkles in a losing battle. As he grows ever taller, his right to freedom from mommy-hovering becomes more obvious, not to mention simply practical. My own words have adjusted in response to his deeper, adolescence-changed voice (yes, even for fairly non-verbal kids, that is an amazing transformation to witness). He’s becoming his own person, just as I am belatedly recognizing that, indeed, he is his own person. Kind of weird how that works.
2- The Window of Opportunity hasn’t closed: Despite all of the warnings, the window of time by which a child must learn did not slam shut. I spent those first few years after diagnosis operating under the looming threat of time—researchers kept coming up with “cut-off” dates by which we had to remediate his deficits. Not talking by five years old? Sorry, doomed—his brain will harden into what he knows and that’s it. Fast-forward twelve years, and guess what? Although he is well past that crucial early intervention stage, he’s still learning, still making progress, still showing us what he can do and how he thinks. The stress of getting all that work in before it’s too late has been tempered by the reality that there’s always work to do and it’s never too late to see progress.
3- This, too? It shall pass: It’s nice to have enough distance now to know that some things really are a phase. Many of the behaviors we worried about when he was younger don’t exist anymore, and many of those did not require extensive intervention [or did not respond to anything we tried]. They just…went away. He moved on to something else or grew out of it. Remember stressing about how to get him to eat anything more than pizza and Fritos? Now, his main dietary restriction is his mother’s lack of cooking skills. Remember how he used to yell whenever someone made a “tsk-tsk” sound? OK, maybe he trained his mother not to “tsk” so much anymore, but the point is, life is a touch saner knowing that many of the things I worry about today will be a distant memory in another twelve years.
4- He owns the Front Seat: Nothing represented my son’s shift from kid to young adult more than his move to the front passenger seat in my car. For us, it happened during his sixth grade year, and it took my brain quite awhile to get a grip on this new dynamic in our relationship. My interactions with him gradually became more equal; my tendency to “over-help” was challenged by the shocking revelations of his ability to open his own car door (of course, he can), stash his stuff at his feet (why am I still carrying everything?) and recover dropped items without a pull-over rescue (Mom’s driving, you’ll have to deal). He has an opinion, and is making it known—from changing the radio station (usually just at the point Mom starts to sing along) to nonchalantly closing his window to stop his mother from talking across him to his teacher at school pick-up.
5- Older? Yes. But, Slightly Wiser: Being a been-there-done-that parent is way better than being a newbie. We’ve explored so many different things over the past dozen years in education, therapies, and medical interventions that I can more quickly recognize if something is going to be worth a try for us. There are strategies that are still around from twelve years ago that might be worth a second look, but many others have vanished, and probably with good reason. Of course, I am still a shiny newbie for the next stage, but my plate is a little clearer now. When my son was first diagnosed, my brain could not cope yet with futuristic pre-teen issues, much less the alien landscape of transition and adulthood. But now, I feel slightly better equipped to tackle this next round of tough decisions. Parents of older children, and especially older autistic individuals themselves, are my teachers now.
6- Mommy’s Big Helper: I wouldn’t have believed it then, but all those years of fake “helping Mommy in the kitchen” have actually morphed into, no, really, Mom needs your help. He can do stuff for us. My strong kid can now help carry the groceries (and more than just the toilet paper). He’s tall enough to open the window shade on our sliding glass door, the cord on which is just too frustratingly short for his mother to reach. Need I say that he is so proud he can do something that I can’t? Plus, we can “practice receptive language” by asking our teenager to retrieve things for us. I sent him upstairs to get my hairbrush last night when I couldn’t find it. He successfully complied and I did not have to get off the couch. Now, that’s some meaningful progress. Twelve years ago, I was not sure that would ever be possible.