Little transitions – stopping an activity to come to dinner, getting into and out of the shower, a new piece of furniture – can be challenging enough to get through. And they make the big transitions – starting a new school, moving, divorce – seem incredibly daunting. And we have a really big one coming up.
In September, Nigel starts high school. Wait – did I just write that? A mere five days ago, as I held my newborn nephew in my arms, I remembered seeing my son for the first time. Holding him, gazing at his sweet little face. How is it possible that the sweet little face now has peach fuzz on it and towers over me? How is it possible that the five-year-old who could not say his name when asked is now pre-registering for a full day of unassisted classes at the high school?
I am, of course, filled with apprehension. But part of me is also hopeful. Two nights ago Nigel and I attended the “8th Grade Pre-Registration Night” at the high school. We ran into a good friend of his, and our families sat together. The principal gave a PowerPoint presentation and spoke about all the positive attributes of the school, including a student support system called an Advisory. It is comprised of twenty students, five from each grade level, and all students in the school are part of one. They meet weekly to discuss both academic and social issues. While this sounded very positive to me, Nigel was more excited about the opportunity to start his own club.
After the principal’s presentation, the audience split up into smaller groups to take teacher-led tours of the school. We had barely gotten started on the tour when Nigel flagged down our tour leader, the vice principal, and mentioned that he wanted to start a club for stop-motion Lego films. Only he asked it in his halting, “I-have-something-to-ask-but-my-autism-makes-me-pause-and-say-hmm-a-lot-when-I’m-nervous-or-not-sure-what-to-say” voice. The vice principal, who had just returned from coaching a softball game, got a blank look on his face for a few seconds, trying to piece together what Nigel had tried to say. I almost stepped in with a quiet “My son has autism” explanation. I’ve done that in the past whenever someone new to us has a hard time understanding Nigel. But something made me hold back this time. In the past year, I’ve tried to hold back whenever I feel that Nigel’s doing okay interacting on his own with someone who doesn’t know him. It may not be perfect, but he manages. I have to realize that I’m not always going to be there, especially at high school, to step in and wave the autism flag. There’s something liberating in the “not telling.” Because, really, a person’s response should not be influenced by knowing if someone’s autistic. Ideally, a person should respond with patience and respect regardless. They should realize that the person addressing them seems to have some difficulty expressing themselves – the reason why shouldn’t matter. And sometimes, after the quick blank look, the other person gets it. They may not know exactly what “it” is, but they know that they’re in the presence of someone who communicates differently, and that’s okay. I took a deep breath and waited for the vice principal’s response.
He got it. He gently rephrased what Nigel had said in a questioning tone to see if he was correct. Nigel confirmed with an appropriate “yeah,” and the vice principal said, “You certainly can start your own club. There’s a sheet in the pre-registration packet that tells you how to do it. That was a great question!” Then he turned and resumed leading the tour.
I exhaled and put my arm around my son as we followed the group. I wanted to high-five the vice principal and tell him that he had just made an autistic teen feel very good about himself. And that he had just made the autistic teen’s parent feel a little better about such a big transition.