I can’t help but be enthralled, and a little nostalgic, to see the way my boys are growing up and maturing. I suppose it’s a wonder for any parent to see the little person they knew becoming a grown up. However, I think it’s especially wonderful for me, because of the many times I was told children with autism don’t really grow up. It’s bullshit, of course. And I knew that. But, still, it’s nice to see my boys as living proof of it.
Don’t get me wrong. I understand how the mythos developed and I get why some parents tell themselves that it’s true. In some ways, it’s easier to see our young adults (and even grown up children) with autism who are significantly disabled as children. If we acknowledge they are adults, it becomes increasingly clear that they are being “left behind” by their peers and even clearer that their lives will be significantly different than we may have hoped. Yet, by living in an illusion of perpetual childhood, we’re doing them a disservice.
From the outside looking in, it’s easy enough to see the many ways Willy is maturing. He’s becoming his own man. He still has his playful, childlike side, which most teenagers do, but he’s also growing up in much the same way most teenagers do. His emotional and intellectual development continues to make leaps forward, but some areas are still underdeveloped. He’s becoming responsible, self-regulated, and intense in his need for self-determination. Best of all, he’s a good kid growing into a good adult, of that, there is no doubt.
From the outside looking in, it’s easy enough to believe that maturation has left Alex behind. He still has the same interests he did as a little child—art and Veggie Tales. He still doesn’t talk and he still struggles to perform academically, due to his communication deficits. He still has more physical needs than Willy does and is obtain a lesser degree of independence, and his gains come much more slowly.
But Alex is maturing in his own ways and in his own time. Unlike Willy, he’s not “out-growing” his earlier interests. But those interests are changing, developing, and refining. He’s becoming more aware of others and is seeking more mature, if atypical, interactions. He’s aware of his body’s changes and he’s aware of the inner changes, though it’s hard to know whether he understands what it means. Self-regulation comes more difficultly for Alex—it always has—but he’s making strides. He’s becoming more responsible, too. And he is also becoming more intense in his need for self-determination, but he also has more obstacles—primarily in communication—to achieving whatever his goals are. Sadly, we don’t always know what they are and it’s becoming more frequent that we don’t.
If we deny the changes our children undergo, we can’t help them to be all of who they are. We can’t help them reach their potential. Even though their potential is different than that of their peers, it’s still important for them and for us that they have the best chance they can to reach their own versions of success.
It’s a parent’s job to nurture children into adulthood. It’s also a parent’s job to let them go when it’s time. That means different things for different children. Sometimes it means moving far away. Sometimes it means taking risks we don’t like. Sometimes it means making choice we’d rather they didn’t. Sometimes it means being more themselves and taking a different place within a family unit. It’s different for each child, even when it seems very much the same. Sometimes it seems very different indeed. Yet, at the heart of it, it is the same. Children grow up. It’s our job to help them do that. First, we need to see that they can.