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Saturday, October 26, 2013

A Child With Autism Becomes a Teenager With Expectations

From The N.Y. Times' Parenting Blog Motherlode
"Adventures in Parenting"

By Priscilla Gilman
October 20, 2013

The night before his 13th birthday, Benj came to the door of my office and knocked in his typically abrupt way. “Mommy, I need to talk to you,” he said. “I’m really worried about tomorrow.”

Benj is on the autism spectrum, and special days cause him more than the usual trepidation. I rushed in with reassurances about the specifics that had concerned him in the past. “What’s worrying you, honey?” I asked. “I’ve told the school to do the special gluten-dairy-free treat for you, and remember we’re going to have the home party this weekend.”

But it was not the mundane details of the day that were on Benj’s mind. “Mommy, I’m nervous about becoming a teen.”

“Nervous about becoming a teen” is such a typical Benj way to put it. I’d shared his anxiety when he was younger. For children with communication difficulties, what could be worse than the social maelstrom of middle and high school, with its cliques and pressure to conform? As social situations became increasingly complex and his peers increasingly sophisticated, I feared that literal, innocent, honest Benj would be picked on, manipulated, or excluded.

But as those years actually approached, my fears were largely allayed. Benj is in a small, special education class where each child’s unique set of strengths and challenges is understood. The school has a no-tolerance policy for teasing, ostracism and bullying. There’s no in group or out group and no norm or standard or box to fit into because these kids are all quirky, each in his or her own way.

So I felt no sense of impending doom at the prospect of Benj becoming a teenager — but he did. “When I’m a teen I’ll have to have hang-outs with my friends all the time!” he told me. “And I’ll have to date people! That’s what teenagers do. They hang out with their friends, and they date.”

I wondered where he’d picked up these conventions about what it means to be a teenager. It was only this year that at the suggestion of his school counselor, Benj began to call get-togethers with peers “hang-outs,” chiding me if I referred to them as the now babyish “play-dates.” “Hang-out,” with its connotations of relaxed, mellow, easygoing camaraderie, is a bit misleading as far as Benj is concerned; socializing with peers can be challenging and arduous for him. More “hang-outs” means more stress. I can’t imagine what he thinks dating holds.

I reassured him that becoming a teen did not mean he had to start dating immediately. “You can date when you’re ready, sweetheart,” I told him, “and that might not be for a long time. And, of course, you can have more hang-outs if you want them. But it’s important to remember that you also need your good alone time.” Benj is a classic introvert who needs long stretches of private time in his room, reading, playing Solitaire or noodling around on the guitar.

Benj thanked me for understanding that he needed his private time, but then insisted that he needed to make sure he was having some hang-outs. He decided on “2.5 hangouts a month” as the right amount. I wondered what would constitute a “half-hang-out,” and then realized that mathematically inclined, precise Benj was averaging the number of hang-outs: 2.5 a month is 30 a year.

“Benj, I want you to know that there isn’t one set definition of what a teenager is. When I was a teenager, I spent lots of time with my friends, but Daddy didn’t have lots of hang-outs or girlfriends when he was a teenager and he was happy that way.”

Parenting Benj, a child very different from the one I’d imagined having, has impressed upon me just how important it is to move beyond normative expectations about what our children will or won’t be, should or shouldn’t do. But again, just because I’ve realized that doesn’t mean that Benj has. Social norms are powerful things, and as much as I may think he isn’t hearing the siren call of “normal,” his surprisingly conventional definition of being a “teen” is proof that he isn’t immune to fears about fitting in.

Our most essential tasks as parents, in fact, may be to recognize our children’s individual temperaments, needs and aspirations and to help them resist prescriptive conventions and imagined ideals in figuring out what’s really right for them. When E.E. Cummings wrote: “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are,” he described the sort of courage I hope to foster in all three of my children, one that enables them to attain the maturity that comes when we identify our own natures and try to live in accordance with them.

“People are different,” I told Benj. “There’s no one right way to be a teenager. And there’s no set way that you have to be, Benji, ever. I will always support you in doing what’s right for you, Benj, not some idea of what a teenager, or a man, or a person should be doing.”

Benj’s 13th year has been one of amazing social growth for him. He had his first phone conversation with a friend, invited a girl to his school’s winter dance (just as friends!), and enjoyed regular “hang-outs” with peers thanks to his social skills group. And he continues to derive a great deal of satisfaction and happiness from his “good alone time.” He’ll even smilingly call out as he ducks into his room: “I’m going in for my private free time!”

Did he hear me, when I promised him he never had to learn to conform? Who knows. Whether you’re turning 13 or 50, it can be difficult to ignore who the world expects you to be — or who you think you’re expected to be. But so far, Benj is managing. He’s growing up into who he really is.

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Priscilla Gilman is the author of The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.

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