Tag Archives: high school

Stepping Back

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.

Brace yourselves.

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.


I suppose many typically-developing teenagers question why they need to learn certain things in school, or why they need to take a certain class. And you can usually reason with them along the lines of “You need to graduate from high school so that you can go to college. Or if you don’t go to college, you still need to graduate from high school so you can at least get an entry-level job somewhere. And in order to graduate from high school, you need to take some classes that you don’t like.” And they won’t like this reasoning, but they will eventually see the logic.

The autistic teen? Not so much. “You don’t think like I do.” This is what Nigel tells me after I have tried the above-mentioned reasoning tactic. He really does not see the merit in graduating from high school. “I want to live how I want to live. Why can’t we live like our cavemen ancestors? That was when survival was more needed than mathematics.” And he is serious.

This is what I deal with when I try to teach him algebra and essay writing. And I point out to him that at least now he can learn these mandatory things at home where it’s quiet and he is not distracted and harassed by other students. I also gently mention that I’ve made some major adjustments to be able to do this for him. But that’s a concept he can’t grasp. Even though once in a while he’ll take out the trash without complaining and then (!) he actually puts a new bag in the trashcan without being reminded (!) or he scoops some ice cream in a bowl for himself and then – on his own – scoops some in a bowl for me (!), even though he does these things once in a great while, he is still pervasively influenced by the aut, the self. Selfism. It’s not that he only thinks about himself or only cares about himself. It’s not egocentric or narcissistic. It’s that he cannot understand someone else’s viewpoint. He can’t possibly realize that, as a single parent, I go through a lot to be able to homeschool him. He can’t understand why education is necessary, beyond what he already knows. He is governed by the self. “You don’t think like I do” also means “I’m only able to think how I think.”

Mind you, this is just a mom still trying to figure it out. I think I know enough, and then months later I have another epiphany and I realize that I have so much more to learn. I know now that I will spend the rest of my days trying to understand my son’s autism. Trying to think like he does. Many parents say that having an autistic child will make you see the world differently. My son is fourteen and every day I am still realizing just how true – how profoundly true – that is.