Lessons from My Son with Autism, As He Nears the End of High School

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At the end of each school year, I reflect on what we have learned over the previous nine months. My son T.J. will be a senior in high school this fall, and while this annual period of reflection is always a critical part of our planning, this year has been particularly enlightening.

When T.J. was diagnosed with autism at age 2, we went through all the emotions, and tried every therapy we could find. We privately mourned the loss of the life we thought we would have, while happily and confidently accepting our new reality. We embraced his diagnosis with optimism, and even through tough times, our strong love for our children was always the driving force.

That hasn’t changed, and it never will. What has changed this year, however, are some of our expectations.Our motto in those early years was “Throw everything at him and let’s see what sticks.” We gave him every possible learning opportunity. Flexibility was key. If one thing wasn’t working, we tried something else. Our teams of teachers and therapists were always willing to change course as needed to ensure T.J. could succeed at school.

But now, at age 17, T.J. is pretty much who he is going to be as an adult. Yes, many things are still up in the air and could change as he experiences the world, but he has largely been shaped. He is wonderful and smart and funny and caring and affectionate. He loves animals, Harry Potter, Pokémon, Power Rangers, Star Wars and Pixar. He is curious about the things that interest him. He gets stressed out easily in a variety of situations and, with some assistance, can calm himself down. He has a bad-boy streak, which manifests as a love of things deemed “inappropriate” in school (swear words, South Park, Family Guy).

When T.J. started school, we aimed for the stars. For my husband and me, that meant trying to get him to college. I grew up with that mind-set. But I’m learning now that it’s not the best path for everyone. So this past winter, as we watched friends with children T.J.’s age plan college tours and prepare for the SAT, we quietly let go of that definition of success.

Our coming to terms with this is the best thing for him, and for us. It’s not what he is meant to do. At least, not in the typical leave home and go to a four-year university way. T.J.’s academic struggles, and his capacity for dealing with stress, are evidence that his path to happiness and success will be uniquely his.

We never let T.J. see that we were struggling with that realization. We didn’t want him to feel responsible for our preconceived notions of what his life should look like.

Along the way, we have talked with T.J. about what he wants his future to look like (a hard and scary concept for a boy who has said “I want to live with you forever”). Now, with his input, we are trying to find the best way to honor his ideas, while tossing in some challenges here and there to help him keep growing. His special educator is on board with this plan and is suggesting options for his future.

We visited a great residential program over spring break, which allows kids on the spectrum to live together, with 24-hour supervision, and provides opportunities to take a college-level course here and there. We can work with T.J. to structure this program to meet his needs, so that he is challenged while not being overly stressed. It’s a delicate balance, but we’re working on it.

So while we quietly mourn our own selfish ideas of what we thought his future would be, we are actively planning his actual future, with him involved every step of the way. It doesn’t look like the college tours a typical high school junior takes, but we are happy with what it is: opportunity, challenge, hand-holding (for him and us!). Slow and steady.

We will find our way, together.

Lauren Swick Jordan