Category Archives: Future

Lucky

“You’re lucky he’s so high-functioning.” – people who mean well

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I’ve heard it a few times over the years. And I’ve never been sure how to respond. I mean, the first time it was said was by someone in a park when my son was running and laughing. He was four and non-verbal.  So . . . not sure how non-verbal equaled high-functioning. Not sure how a complete stranger could make an assessment like that after observing my son for one minute.  Perhaps, since it was 1998, the person didn’t really know much about autism and thought it was a predominantly physical disability. Perhaps if someone had turned on a leaf blower and my son had started screaming, the person would not have said that. Perhaps if she had asked him his name and not received an answer from him, she might have thought differently about his functioning level. Not sure. I really didn’t have time to get into it with her. A second later, Nigel darted for the street, and I ran after him. High-functioning.

High-functioning can be misleading. Now, people see him as a high-functioning verbal teen. And that’s what he is. But what they don’t see are the years and years behind that high-functioning teen. The years of language acquisition through echolalia, over a decade of speech therapy, and daily life. The years of learning to filter sensory issues so that he can function semi-comfortably in various environments, even those as basic as classrooms, restaurants, grocery stores, and public restrooms. The years of learning appropriate and inappropriate behavior, with which he still struggles.

When people see a high-functioning verbal teen, they don’t see the daily medications he must take to manage his behavior and his anxiety. They don’t see the daily doses of risperidone and sertraline. They don’t see the subdued quality in his eyes that his mother has had to get used to seeing, because she knows it helps her son to achieve his goal of being mainstreamed in his local public school. Without the medication, he would not be able to manage his behavior. That is one way that high-functioning autism affects him. Being able to communicate is huge, but it is not the only issue.

When people see a high-functioning verbal teen, they don’t see how he’s been bullied and harassed and taken advantage of. They don’t see his trusting nature, they don’t see his lower emotional age, they don’t see his vulnerability. They don’t see how because he has to spend his days working so hard  – to filter the sensory issues of daily life, focus on trying to be appropriately social, and try to concentrate on school work – that he is exhausted. That sometimes it’s all too much for him, being autistic in this world.

Yet he continues to try, he continues to want to. He has a certain joie de vivre that I envy. Because of his autism, he doesn’t understand certain social obligations that will affect him very soon, as he enters adulthood. He wants to be an inventor when he grows up – an inventor of time machines. And while the finished product would most likely be quite lucrative, he doesn’t understand that he needs to have some type of income while he’s inventing his time machine, so that he can buy food for himself and pay for his shelter. When I try to explain this to him, he suggests that we should all live like our early human ancestors, in a very primordial sense. He says this with conviction, the same conviction with which he discusses his time machine. I don’t see that going over well in a job interview. High-functioning.

There are still so many things that others don’t see. Because they see a high-functioning teen, their expectations are higher, and while we should never sell our ASD kids short in what they can accomplish, we as parents know where the difficulties lie. We know how their delays in emotional and social development still affect them. We worry about how they will interact with people who don’t know them when we’re not with them to facilitate. We know that there are things about living in our society that they cannot understand, such as having a job and paying the bills. Yes, my son is now high-functioning, but he has fought tooth and nail (literally, sometimes) to get there. If there was any luck involved, it was because every time he’s wandered away or bolted into the street or lit something on fire, he’s never been harmed. So yes, to everyone who’s ever said that I’m lucky, I am.  High-functioning or not.

Wing Check

I remember the public library near my home where I grew up – in a suburb twenty miles east of Los Angeles. I felt comfortable there, surrounded by books and like-minded people. I loved to go there, whether it was to find a cozy novel or to do research for a report or essay (definitely pre-Internet). When I was fourteen, my parents would drop me off with instructions to be standing out front for pick-up in an hour, which always went by too fast.

I still love libraries, especially small ones like the one I grew up with and the one in the small southern Oregon town in which I currently reside. Once every two weeks, Nigel and I walk the third-of-a-mile distance from our home to the library. I read magazines while he peruses the juvenile shelves for his favorite book series, Eyewitness, covering topics as varied as the Civil War, Ancient Greece, pirates, knights, and everything in between. After a half an hour, he has made his selections, and we check them out via the self-checkout (which he loves), and then we walk home. Often, since it is a small library, we need to request certain books through the inter-library loan service, and that is what Nigel did last week for the book The Neverending Story. And they called today to let us know that it had arrived.

I was busy working, trying to meet a deadline, and of course Nigel had to get his book right then. I thought for a second. He is fourteen, he can communicate, and he wants to be independent. He can do this, I thought. I took a deep breath and the words came out as I exhaled: “Would you like to walk to the library to get it yourself?”

“I can go,” he said, some excitement in his voice. “I know how to get there. I can get the book myself.” He quickly went to put on his shoes and jacket, as if worried that I would change my mind. “I’ll watch for cars,” he added.

I opened the front door for him as he left. “Be careful,” I said. “And come right back after you get the book.” I checked the clock and allotted enough time for him to walk there and back, added a few extra minutes for distraction, and noted what time I should start to worry if he wasn’t back yet. Ha! Start to worry. Like I wasn’t going to worry the entire time he was gone.

A minute after he left, some idiot on a scooter sped down our 25-mile-per-hour residential street, and I worried about Nigel reacting to the sound, or worse, not getting out of the way fast enough. I worried about him crossing the busier street that the library is on, I worried about someone luring him into their house. I worried about him darting away from bees and other flying insects, I worried about him leaving his library card at the library and having to go back for it (which has happened before, even when I was with him).

But these are the baby steps we must take. I would love for my son to at least have a semi-independent life, and I must start fostering that. I must let go a little. I have to trust. I’ve laid the groundwork, and now it’s time for him to test his wings a little. And it’s time for me to let him. I just hope that the idiot on the scooter is long gone when Nigel makes his way back to the nest.

It was silly of me to think that I could focus on my work while Nigel was gone. He has gone out on his own before, for bike rides around the neighborhood or to go to a friend’s house, and I worried those times, too. I don’t suppose it will get any easier, especially as he gets older and wants to do even more things independently. And I know that this is something all parents go through to a degree, especially since I have a younger, non-autistic child and go through it with him. But it is different – they are different.  They have coping tools and social skills to see them through many situations that Nigel does not, making him far more vulnerable. But I can’t deprive him of the satisfaction of walking to the library himself to check out a book if he is able to. And I believe that he is.

Right on time, actually early, he walks through the door, book in hand and library card in pocket. “Everything go okay?” I ask. “Fine,” he says, and shows me the book. It’s probably the same exchange that took place with my parents when they picked me up at the library all those years ago. And it feels just as good, all these years later.

A Little Hope

Yesterday I attended the first family-centered support group meeting for ASD families in southern Oregon. I’ve previously attended other support groups for parents, and they were always welcoming, but I felt like something was missing. I would leave without feeling better than when I had arrived. It wasn’t the type of support group I was looking for.

This one yesterday was different. It was so affirming to have the kids there. The parents, the ASD kids, and the siblings all there, all interacting – it just felt right. I met other parents also at the teen stage as well as others just starting out. The level of understanding was inherent, as was the bond. I saw tiredness on some of their faces, and stress. But I also saw hope.

And the hope was there because the older kids were there. I saw some young parents watching Nigel, and that gave me a sense of pride. Because I know how far he’s come. I still have many concerns about the future, of course. But if Nigel, just as he is, can give some young parents hope for their child’s development, that’s something. That’s really something.

I did the same thing when I went to the autism and puberty seminar that I attended in October. One of the presenters at the seminar was a higher-functioning autistic adult. All the parents were rapt as we listened to her, watched her, absorbed her. She was hope to us, those of us with teens. She patiently answered questions, related stories of her childhood and teenage years, what she had been like. We all wanted to know when she had started talking so that we could compare that to our own children’s past development, and look ahead to how far she progressed, thinking that the potential was there for our kids. Of course, there are no guarantees, and we know that. But still. We hope.

If you ever have the opportunity to attend a seminar where an autistic adult will be presenting, I encourage you to do so. You will come away with a sense of understanding that you couldn’t possibly get from reading a book. You can’t look at that person and think, That’s what my kid could be like. But looking at them and just experiencing their presence will give you hope. And we could all use a little more of that.

To Drive or Not to Drive

M at Incipient Turvy, one of the blogs I love and read regularly, recently commented on my stuffed animal post. The thought of him searching strange word combinations to try to find Teen Autism gave me an idea for a new series of posts:  Sunday Searches. Each week I’ll write a post about a search that was used to find this website. I’ve already got a list going from months ago. Some are funny, some are serious. And some of them are really worth discussing.

Here’s this week’s search: “autistic teen does not want to drive a car”

First off, that’s probably a good thing. I wish Nigel hadn’t started talking about wanting to drive. I’m fine with him driving go-karts, but about a year ago, he started talking about when he turns sixteen and gets his driver’s license. Like he’s assuming it’s going to happen. Two years from now? I don’t think so. He gets distracted enough while just walking down the street, let alone operating a moving vehicle down the street. He has this idea in his head that if he can physically drive the car and knows the mechanics of it that he should be able to have his license. About six months ago, he reached in the glove box and pulled out the car manual and said, “I need to start studying this so that I can get my driver’s license when I’m sixteen.” Fortunately we were still in the driveway or I might have driven off the road in sheer panic.

Of course, there are autistic adults who drive. Temple Grandin, who drives, has said this about the subject: “I think it’s difficult for many people on the autism spectrum to drive because there is so much going on at the same time and so much to pay attention to at once.  For people on the spectrum who want to drive, I recommend a full year of driving on easy roads with no traffic before venturing out on freeways and busy intersections.  Once you don’t have to think about steering, braking or pushing on the gas, it’s much easier to multitask on busy roads.”

I suppose that when Nigel’s emotional age catches up, I might consider letting him learn to drive. His current emotional age is about eight, even though cognitively he is at or above his actual grade level. So since he’s about six years behind emotionally, I figure that in about seven or eight years he will reach the emotional age of 16 (when he’s in his early twenties). Then we’ll look at his sensory processing, his maturity, and we’ll entertain the idea of him possibly getting his driver’s license. Until then, go-karting will have to do. And I’ll just keep wishing that our local Family Fun Center offered frequent driver rates.

Right on Schedule

The future will arrive when it’s ready. Whether it seems so or not, your life is right on schedule.                                       –clipped from an old horoscope, author unknown

I have spent most of today thinking about the future, specifically, thinking about the subjects of yesterday’s post. I sat at my desk for an hour last night writing it, carefully wording what I meant to convey, not sure if I was doing it right. What I neglected to say was this: Even if Nigel doesn’t progress any further, even if he hadn’t progressed to the point where he is now, I would be fine with that. I hope for his progress, but not because I want him to change. I am so happy with him the way that he is, the way that he’s always been. I hope for his continued progress because it would open more doors for him. It would enable him to experience more of life, and that is what he wants, and I want that for him. We all dream for our children. Autism doesn’t put an end to that.

And so this morning, having been up late thinking about what I had written, obsessing about the future, I came and sat down at my desk, my big L-shaped desk with all my projects spread out all over it, and my framed family photos of my loved ones smiling at me, and my soothing candles and bamboo, and my eyes fell on that little quote I had taped to the bottom of my monitor. The future will arrive when it’s ready. I needed that reminder today more than I usually do.

Whether it seems so or not, your life is right on schedule. And so is Nigel’s.

The High Functioning Threshold

I recently came across this survey taken by one of my favorite sites for autism information, Natural Learning Concepts.

Over 5,000 people have been asked this question.  The results of the poll are:

 

WHEN MY CHILD IS AN ADULT, HE/SHE WILL:

1. Live independently 8 Percent
2. Live independently but require minimal support 42 Percent
3. Live in a group home 14 Percent
4. My child will probably never leave home 36 Percent

 

These results intrigue me, and make me wonder two things. First of all, how old are the children of the parents surveyed? I know that my answer would vary depending on the age Nigel had been at the time I was asked. Between the ages of three and seven, I would have chosen #4, My child will probably never leave home. Between the ages of eight and thirteen, I would have chosen #3, Live in a group home. But now, as he nears fourteen, I might possibly choose #2, Live independently but require minimal support. Or, it might be #4 until his late twenties-mid thirties, and then #2.  And then, as I look back at how far he’s come and dare to dream about how far he might be able to go, I wonder if the possibility exists that in a few years I could actually answer #1, Live independently. As the years have gone by, his functioning has gone from fairly low to moderate to fairly high. What if he continues to improve? What is his true potential?

And this brings me to my second question: At what point do we say that someone is high functioning? The definition is rather subjective. I have acquaintances who’ve said to me, “How wonderful that Nigel’s so high functioning!” But I think, if he were so high functioning, wouldn’t he be able to be mainstreamed? Wouldn’t he be able to make it through a typical school day? At this point, he talks HFA (high functioning autistic). His sensory issues, so severe in the past, are now at a manageable level. So how do we quantify our child’s level of functioning? Where is the high functioning threshold anyway? At what point do we know that our children have crossed it? And what does that mean for them and their future? Trying to make their way in this world that could easily take advantage of them? What does it mean for us, their parents?

Of course, if Nigel were still non-verbal or still had severe sensory issues, I would not be asking these questions. I would choose answer #3 or #4, as I would have when he was younger. I would still think about his future, of course, and mine. I would obsess about finding a good facility for him. I know that it would not be easier, because I had been in those shoes for several years. But it would be different. My concerns about my son’s future are different now than they were before he began reaching for the high functioning threshold, but no less worrisome, no less consuming.

And so, regardless of our children’s age, regardless of their functioning level, we all face the question posed by Natural Learning Concepts regarding our children’s future. We all wonder and worry. Some parents’ worries evolve and change, and some are unique to their own circumstances. But we all face the prospect of how autism will affect our children’s futures. We all have our own suitcases to carry. And whether we cross that threshold or whether we’re at the opposite end of the spectrum or somewhere in between, we still face this challenge. And that is no small feat.

3 Greatest Concerns

A friend of mine recently suggested that I identify and write about the three biggest areas of concern for parents of autistic children. I quickly determined my three, and they are probably universal.

1) Safety

Our children’s safety is a huge life-long concern. We worry because they can have extreme responses to sensory issues, like darting into the street because a bug flew in their face or screaming and writhing on the floor in a public restroom because someone started the air hand-dryer. Our children are also vulnerable to being coerced into doing things that are dangerous or illegal because they are trusting and many of them want to have friends. We worry that they might be abused at some point in their lives, and worse, not be able to tell us. Some of our children have seizures, which can be deadly. We worry if our child leaves the house when unsupervised; some are runners who like to “escape.” We worry about our children injuring themselves or others when they lash out due to frustration or fear. We worry about how people out in the community will respond to them. Safety is definitely a primary concern, and parents must be vigilant.

2) Education

We parents are equally concerned about our autistic children’s ongoing education. We want to make sure that they are in cognitive-appropriate programs and that they have access to the various types of therapy that they need so that they can progress to their optimal level of development and functioning. If our children are mainstreamed, we constantly have to check in to make sure that their needs are being met, that they are not being bullied, and that they aren’t just being sent to the library to watch videos. Our children’s academic and social development greatly affects their potential, and we always want them to be happy, learning, and valued. This involves a great deal of parent advocacy.

3) Future

It may only be an occasional thought for parents of younger autistic children (mostly because we were too busy trying to deal with the present), but once our children hit adolescence, it becomes a major concern. What does the future hold for my child? How will he be in adulthood? What happens when I’m not around to care for him? These are all questions that entered my mind upon Nigel’s initial diagnosis, and infrequently in the ensuing years. About a year or so ago I started to really wonder about his future, to think about it on a regular basis. I have concerns about how independent he will be, how he will navigate the community without my intervention, how he will interact with people. Most importantly, I want him to feel fulfilled with his life, to have a job that he enjoys and people around him who appreciate him. I want him to be happy. Of course, that is what all parents want for their children. But with autism in the picture, parents so often have to orchestrate the outcome, since in many cases we are heavily involved for the rest of our lives. Our concerns about our child’s future become our champion cause.

Bitterness

Over the weekend, I did some looking around online at autism sites written by “auties.” (I’m still getting used to that word, which is why I put it in quotations. It took me eight years to come to terms with using the word “autistic,” so “autie” will sound different to me for a while.) I was sad to see that many of them are quite bitter. I can’t say that I blame them, because with the harassment and ignorance that Nigel has dealt with, I’m sure there are plenty of other auties who have experienced the same treatment. And as they head into adulthood, that’s a lot of accumulated years of negative exchanges.   

I found a bumper sticker that says: “Cure Neurotypicals now!” And in smaller print below: “Offended? Good. Now you know how we feel.” Meant to be funny, I presume, with an ounce (at least) of seriousness. But some of the web sites I viewed over the weekend seemed just plain angry. I want to tell the authors something, with all my heart.

 I’m sorry for how you’ve been treated. You have every right to be angry. But holding on to that anger will only make you feel worse. Remaining angry will not alleviate the anger. Remaining angry will not punish the people who hurt you. Remaining angry will only hurt you. Please, for your emotional well-being, channel your anger into something positive, like creating an online support group for others who have experienced the same thing. You will know you are not alone, and you’ll feel at least a little better.

Nigel gets angry about bullies. Most likely, as he gets older he will experience more bullying and more ignorance. I don’t like thinking about what he has gone through, what he will continue to face, how things will be for him in high school, possibly college, a future workplace, and the general community. I hope that I’ve given him a strong enough base of love and self-worth that he can successfully let go of his anger and not allow it to consume him.

I don’t want Nigel to feel bitter when he’s an adult. I want him to feel cherished, appreciated for who he is, and important. I want him to feel loved.

The Autism Club

When I was in high school I had a good friend I’ll call Eddy. Eddy and I were in several of the same classes since freshman year, and by junior year, we had become pretty close. We never dated, but we talked a lot, and one day during class he ran out, visibly upset, and the teacher suggested I go check on him. I found him sitting on the steps of the side entrance of the building, and I sat next to him and gave him a hug. He told me that he was coming to terms with the fact that he was gay. He didn’t know how to tell anyone; he felt confused and a little scared. I assured him I would be there for him.

Months later, Eddy felt better and more sure of himself. His family had responded positively to the news and his friends supported him. He said that he couldn’t believe that it was happening to him. He had read and heard about people being gay, but until he acknowledged that he was, he never realized what it would be like, how it would affect him. He said that he felt like now he belonged to The Gay Club. And that it would determine the rest of his life.

I certainly didn’t feel it at first, but over the years I have come to realize that with my son’s diagnosis I was granted lifetime membership in The Autism Club. I had read and heard about autism, but I had no idea what it was like until, through him, it became present in my life. I never realized how that would affect our whole family.

I’m sure it’s the same for any parent of a child with a disability. You start going to all the IEP meetings, the team meetings with therapists, the therapy appointments, dealing with trying to take your child out in public, finding a good fit with a program or school and changing frequently when it doesn’t fit. You come to terms with how the disability affects all the family members, now and in the future. You realize that your lives are going to be different than those of your neighbors, and even your friends. You wonder how it will affect your other child, having a special needs sibling.

So you go to the meetings, you do what you need to do, you give attention and show empathy to your other child, and somehow, as the years go by you realize that you are functioning, you are doing this. Life goes on. It’s different, it’s not how you thought it would be, not what you would have wished for yourself and your children, but it’s okay.

Some might think I’m trivializing the experience by calling it The Autism Club. It is in no way trivial, and I know that only too well. It affects me deeply. I realize that I’m not the one who lives with it, but I am connected for life to the one who does. There are millions of parents of autistic kids, all going through what I go through. And that makes me feel like we’re all part of some special club or association. We didn’t ask to join. But we’re making the best of it. And it’s good to know that we’re not alone.