Sometimes I feel wildly unsuccessful on this parenting journey. To have your child struggle so mightily and not know instinctually how to help is a truly awful feeling. E man is in a rough spot – and we are genuinely struggling to figure out how to help him in the midst of what feels like a growing mountain of challenges.
Elliott has autism – that makes some things really hard for him, and also gives him some really cool strengths. E has a memory for numbers that astounds me. He knows birthdays, phone numbers, addresses, maps like nobody’s business. While Henry struggled to memorize his combination lock this fall, and then really struggled when he realized he also had a gym combination, E man memorized his, both of Henry’s and several “lucky” classmates who have space near him in record time. Remember that part about some things being really, really hard for him? Yeah – well apparently shouting random peoples’ locker combinations out loud in the hallways doesn’t help to make middle school friends. But when you don’t have friends, and struggle with how to start a conversation, that for some reason seemed like a good plan & I get that. He’s not great with boundaries, he’s really not shy, and he wants to try out some new and interesting ways to interact with his peers. Sure, I wish he could learn from his social missteps without feeling the need to repeat some of them several times, but frankly, I love that he’s socially motivated, wants to interact with others, and that he’s not afraid to fail a few times in the process. To be fair, Elliott’s autism is not his biggest challenge these days – it’s his learning disability.
I’ve written about it here too many times to count, but E has a reading comprehension disability that affects every aspect of his middle school experience. The crummy part is that it bothers him to the point that it’s causing some serious anxiety, and I hate that. Not everyone that has autism has learning disabilities – some do, some don’t and everything in between, but E does in a substantial way. This causes so much challenge for him because he has this insatiable desire to be in mainstream classes all the while knowing that they are for the most part far beyond his grasp at this point. Every single day, without fail, we have some sort of discussion at our house about when he can move into this class or that class and why he needs help and how he wishes some things were not so hard for him to learn.
No matter what, I’m never going to be the one to tell him he can’t achieve something. First and foremost, I believe in him with every fiber of my being, and I’ve seen him overcome obstacles that no one thought possible. But, I do tell him that it will be hard, that even though it’s not fair he will need to work harder than most others, and that it’s a process that can’t happen tomorrow. It’s like a broken record – every day he asks something like “can I be in a big math class by Monday?” and I tell him that I believe he can be in a big math class by goal setting and working hard, but it won’t happen by Monday.
There is a certain ugliness where E is at with autism/anxiety/puberty/ADHD even beyond the crazy images that combination likely poses in your mind. He is savvy enough to understand his challenges, but not fully able to overcome them to his liking – and that’s an awful place to be. Where we don’t quite see eye to eye is in the effort/making-an-action-plan department. He wants things done by next week, while Tom & I would love for him to make smaller attainable goals rather than allowing himself to be so overwhelmed with the enormity of it all. Sure, hormones and a big splash of anxiety don’t help, but the conflict inside of him seems to get bigger even as we try every strategy we can think of. It’s an unpleasant place, and for now, it’s day by day around here. Tom & I are in that icky place of trying to decide whether it’s worth working through the vast behavioral difficulties he struggles with or realizing he just needs a smaller, more structured learning environment for now. That doesn’t mean it’s not important for him to learn how to maneuver through some of these challenges – but if it’s at the expense of another school year spent falling further behind and no meaningful academic gains, is that the best choice for him?
And while in some ways he seems so vastly different than his peers, in other ways, he is very much a 13-year-old. Last weekend, he asked me out of the blue if he could call (random girls name). I asked who she was and he told me I didn’t know her. I asked if he had classes with her and he said no, but that he thought she was a nice girl. So, I awkwardly launched into a funky discussion about how it would be better to talk with her at school first, and ask if it would be ok to call as just randomly calling a girl you don’t know without a reason might make her feel a little uncomfortable. Then I silently cursed Tom for being gone at the moment, and finished with something about how teenagers think about things differently, and she might assume he wants to have a girlfriend instead of a friend. Then, he looked at me with that 13-year-old snarky-yet-confident expression and said “why wouldn’t I have a girlfriend?” Ugh.
Yeah – it’s been a real party around here these days, and my peers are telling me it’s going to get worse before it gets better. Oh the joy! That’s not even counting Henry with his own interesting middle school issues, or Ada who is kind of in an awesome place except that she feels the need to carry an entourage of stuffed animals with her wherever she goes and then pawns them off on me.
Finally, a couple of weeks ago, E came home and asked about moving to some random big class, as he does, but this time followed it up with a new plea – “why can’t I walk home from school?” To be fair, it was refreshing at first to have a new issue to work through – new strategies, new reasoning for why he should be able to do something. At first, we were not open to it at all – E’s school is 2.2 miles from our house, down the sidewalk of a busy street. He’s good with rules, but cars can be distracted – I was completely freaked out. So, I negotiated, and he reluctantly agreed. He walked from his school to his old elementary school which does not involve a street at all. Not only did it go well, I could tell instantly that it gave him a sense of pride that had been missing all this school year, and I realized we had to find a way to make this work. So, we did some training, and talked about how people don’t wake up one morning and run a marathon, but little by little they increase their distance. The first time he had to cross an intersection, I was in a panic. There I was, sitting with Ada in the McDonald’s parking lot, and just as we had discussed, he called me from his phone, looked both ways and crossed (and yelled hello to a former teacher). It was huge.
All week, we inched it up, and then when he watched the weather forecast on Sunday, he looked at us and said “Monday is the day”, and so it was. Yesterday, I got 2 calls from him during his walk and a text message from a friend making sure he was ok before we caught up with him on the sidewalk a short distance from our house. He was literally beaming, and wouldn’t even slow down or let me help him with his backpack until he got all the way to the house. Mission. Accomplished.
He made a goal, broke it down, trained for it and attained it. He felt every bit a 13-year-old, and suddenly that made all the other challenges in his life seem just a little bit smaller. I love it when he reminds me that anything is possible and never stops putting one foot in front of the other.
So, if you happen to be driving down our street today, feel free to wave to the E man . . .