Autism: Looking Ahead To The Teenage Years

2013-07-06 10.23.30

A few short weeks from now, my older son George will be turning 10. This is a pretty big milestone for any parent. Not only will it launch George into double digits, it will mean that I have navigated the mysterious world of parenting for a full decade. Not just any old parenting, either – special needs parenting.

In his ten years, George has accomplished some amazing things in the face of his autism. I could go on all day about progress and milestones and potential, and I really am proud of his determination. Whether or not he is aware of his disability is debatable, but either way, he works really hard for every single victory. The smallest accomplishments that would go unnoticed in most families are a giant cause for celebration in ours.

The harsh reality, though, is that George still has some challenges, the most obvious of which is his lack of speech. He can talk – he has the physical ability and the vocabulary – but he doesn’t. His speech is mostly limited to requests, although he does occasionally make mind-blowing (to me) statements, like last week when he showed me his “screaming green angry gorilla”, which was actually a Hulk toy.

We cannot have conversations with George. We cannot say, “So, what did you do at school today?” and expect him to answer. His standard answer to most questions that are posed to him is “yes”, even when that doesn’t fit the question. Of great concern to me, if something bad was happening to him, like bullying or molestation, he wouldn’t  be able to tell me about it.

That’s just the speech side of it. Social communication is an issue big enough for its own blog post. And as much as George has made phenomenal cognitive gains, in many areas he still functions well below the level of typical kids his age.

And so, with his 10th birthday approaching, my husband and I are preparing ourselves for the fact that he may not be as high-functioning a teenager as we have been hoping. When we got his report card a couple of weeks ago – the one that says he is “transferred” to Grade 5, unlike other kids who are “promoted” – I had a moment of pure terror at the realization that 8 years from now, he will be nominally eligible to graduate high school. It wasn’t the normal “Oh, how fast time passes” kind of terror. It was fear for George’s future.

Until now, my husband and I have been swirling these thoughts around in our heads, but today we spoke about them for the first time. We talked about preparations that need to be made and programs that need to be sought out. We talked about what the reality of life is likely to be when George reaches teenagerdom, just three years from now. He will not have a peer support system like most kids, and he will always be quite obviously “different”. He will go through the angst of adolescence without the ability to express himself verbally, and if we don’t keep a close watch on him, he might be the target of bullying. Other teens – or, Lord help us, some adults – might take advantage of his natural sweetness and trusting nature.

Talking about it makes it so much more real and so much scarier. It brings tears close to the surface and makes me feel very emotional. It makes me wonder if I, as George’s mother, have been doing enough for him. Is there something I have overlooked, some possibility that I have not explored, some avenue of opportunity that I have allowed to pass by?

Of course, I could be wrong. We could see George’s speech and social communication skills explode one day. I am not giving up, and I am not losing hope. I am simply being realistic so I can equip myself to provide the kind of support George will need as he navigates his way from here to adulthood.

Today, when I was out for a walk with my family, I kept looking over at George with an aching heart. He is my beautiful boy, with the most tender of souls, and I just want for him to be OK.

(This is an original post by Kirsten Doyle. Photo credit to the author.)


Diagnosis Day: 8 Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me


Do you ever look back on a particular day in your life and wish things had gone differently? If only you’d said this thing, or if only you’d done that thing. We all know, of course, that those “if only” scenarios don’t do us one whit of good in terms of the outcome, but that doesn’t mean we’re not allowed to think of them. Sometimes we can use those lessons in the future, and sometimes we can help other people going through similar things.

One of the most pivotal days in the life of an autism parent is the day of their child’s diagnosis. When I look back on that day, I remember shock, tears, and a sense that a giant constrictor had wrapped itself around me and was squeezing me so tightly around the chest that I could barely breathe.

Realistically, there’s no way to completely cushion a blow like this. But maybe – just maybe – there are some things that would make it easier to bear. Here are the things I wish I had known when I got the diagnosis.

1. The doctor does not have a crystal ball. Any dire predictions that he makes for your child’s future are not set in concrete.

2. If you Google too much too soon, you can drown under the weight of the information overload.

3. Your child is first and foremost a child. Don’t let your child become the diagnosis, the whole diagnosis and nothing but the diagnosis.

4. You may feel as if your reality has shattered, but all that’s happened is that your reality has changed. You have to give yourself the space and time to get used to your new view.

5. Now more than ever, you need to nurture your relationship with your partner.

6. Apply for all the funding and services you can, even if you think odds are stacked against you. There’s always the chance that something will stick.

7. Don’t be afraid to cry. Even if it’s in front of the kids. It’s OK for them to know that you’re human.

8. Know that you can do the whole special needs parenting thing. You may not feel that way in the beginning, but you will. You don’t have to know all the answers – because let’s face it, none of us ever does – just know that you will be the parent your child needs you to be.



10 Useful Skills For Autism Parents

Autism parents frequently have to do things that other parents don’t. Our kids are so different, what with their limited communication skills, their sensory challenges, and at times, their superhuman physical strength. It is impossible to parent a child with autism in the same way you would parent a typical child (which means that when you have both an autie and a typical child you have to adopt two different parenting styles, but that’s another post for another day).

In the beginning, it’s hard, knowing what to do. And in a way, it never really gets any easier. But there are things I have learned from experience, that are now second nature. Here are ten of my favourites.

  1. Drywall repair. Many auties, my son included, are headbangers. They may bang their heads out of anger or frustration, or simply to get attention. And then they bang their heads, they don’t mess around. They give the wall a good solid WHUMP that’s enough to make the room shake. The drywall invariably takes some punishment. The inside of my house looks a bit like a pitted golf ball, and there are places where the impact of my son’s head has caused actual holes – big, gaping holes.
  2. Mixed Martial Arts. My husband likes to watch Ultimate Fighter on TV, and although I don’t watch it myself, I have absorbed some of it through osmosis. This has proved invaluable in times when my son has had a meltdown. When most kids have meltdowns, they simply lose their tempers. When auties have meltdowns, they thrash on the floor, bash their heads on the closest hard surface, and can risk hurting themselves quite badly. Even as they are kicking and screaming, they have to be kept safe. Hence the MMA skills. I have become quite the expert at using my bodyweight to restrain my son from hurting himself. The difference between me and the Ultimate Fighter guys, of course, is that I try to avoid causing pain, I don’t get paid big money for my efforts, and I have a mental age that’s higher than my shoe size.
  3. Dishwasher Racing. My son hates – and I mean hates – for the dishwasher to be open. Anytime I have to unload it and repack it, I have to deal with this kid repeatedly – and with increasing volume – telling me to close the dishwasher. He plants his bum on the kitchen floor, right in front of the sink, so I cannot get to the dishes. Sometimes I actually have to slide him out of the way. I have taken to setting the oven timer whenever I start doing dishwasher stuff, and the idea that he can visually see how long it will take does seem to soothe him. But God help me if the dishwasher is not packed, closed and switched on by the time the timer expires.
  4. Stealth Hair Cutting. My son, like many other kids, dislikes haircuts. But he doesn’t dislike haircuts in the same way most other kids dislike haircuts. He dislikes haircuts in the same way most people dislike having a kidney forcibly removed while fully conscious and able to feel pain. Rather than risk traumatizing my child, I give him haircuts while he is sleeping. This involves a lot of patience, as I have to wait until he is very asleep. If he’s not asleep enough, he will wake up as soon as I touch his hair and he will scream loudly enough to startle the llamas in Peru. I have to creep around in the dark like a burglar, and sometimes it takes several nights to get the job done.
  5. Mediation. OK, this is a skill that any parent with more than one child has to learn. But when one child has autism and the other doesn’t, you have to raise your mediation skills to a whole new level. It’s a bit like trying to sort out a dispute between one person who only speaks Zulu and another person who only speaks Icelandic, when you only speak Pig Latin.
  6. Jumping Through Hoops Of Fire That Are Constantly Moving. OK, that may be a slight exaggeration. But dealing with school boards can really feel that way when special needs concerns are brought into the mix. I am getting really good at making suggestions to teachers and therapists that are phrased in a way that makes it sound like it was their idea. If it gets what my son needs, I really don’t care who gets the credit for it.
  7. Improv. If I had a dollar for every time a random stranger made a stupid remark about my son needing “a good hiding” or “proper discipline”, I’d have enough for a five-star trip to New Zealand, including flights, hotels, meals, and a Lord Of The Rings tour. I have learned the art of the Quick Comeback. If someone is being rude and intrusive while my son is having a hard time, I am no longer shy about saying things like, “My child has autism – what’s your excuse?”
  8. Distraction. This is a concept that most autism parents are well aware of. Sometimes I can just tell that a meltdown is just around the corner, and I want to do everything in my power to head it off at the pass. I get favoured activities or treats within arms’ reach, try to stop or somehow control whatever is winding him up, talk to him, sing to him, throw out mental arithmetic problems at him (the kid’s like Baby Rain Man with numbers – what can I say?) I have about fifty-fifty success with my efforts – but I will take that over ninety-ten in favour of the meltdown.
  9. Planning for Change. If there’s one word that makes autism parents everywhere tremble with fear, it’s change. Our kids don’t do well with change. They like the same places, the same people, the same routines. When we go on vacations, we have to take most of our family’s belongings with us so that we can replicate our home environment as closely as possible. Every summer, we put together social stories in preparation for the new school year, that include pictures of the new teacher and classroom, and we take our son to the school so he can get used to – or stay used to – playing in the playground there. I contingency-planned my wedding like it was going out of style – and all of those efforts paid off.
  10. Appreciating the Little Things. Where an autism parent is concerned, there is no such thing as a small accomplishment. All achievements, ranging from new words added to the vocabulary to giant cognitive leaps, are causes for celebration. As the parent of a child with autism, I have really learned how to smell the roses. Life is full of challenges for me and my family. But every single day is a blessing, and every single night, when I kiss my children goodnight, I am grateful for the people they are. And no matter how hard the day has been, I feel like the richest person on the planet.