Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Somewhere ‘Tween

The three tween boys sat in the row behind me waiting for the movie to start. At that time in December of 2004, my own little boy was still in his mother’s be born on April 6th, 2005.

The boys, all wearing baseball caps and superhero-themed shirts, sipped their sodas and munched on their popcorn. Their conversation about the movie we were about to see (The Incredibles, I believe) and what they wanted for Christmas made me laugh and smile as it reflected the topics they cared about the most and what seemed to be the camaraderie of typical boys of that age.

I listened to their chatter until the movie started, all the while looking forward to the day when my son would be sitting in the movie theater with his friends having a very similar conversation. I figured that’s the way things were and that’s how they’d be for my Mikey. Autism was the farthest thing from my mind that day...heck, I really didn’t even know what autism was.

Today, on this April 6th, 2016, as my now tween Mikey celebrates his 11th birthday, I know far too well what autism is—and that movie theater scenario is a distant fantasy. The difference between those typical tween boys and my autistic tween boy couldn’t be more obvious.

I look at my beautiful, amazing boy and I realize that, although he has just turned eleven, I have no idea what a typical eleven-year-old boy is supposed to do or how they are supposed to act. Mikey also wears a baseball hat and superhero shirt at times, but they are what we buy for him, he has no interest in them, specifically. Toys are an interest, but he doesn’t get influenced by seeing a commercial for a new toy and he still is attracted to toys that are for a much, much younger age range. While we’ve taken him to a few movies, he can barely sit through them (after the popcorn has run out) and has never requested to see one on his own (instead preferring to watch videos of children’s shows he should have outgrown already). And perhaps the thing that stands out the most, he has no friends. Yes, he has his "friends" that he goes to school with, but he has no desire for interaction and no awareness of that kind of relationship.

Where does all of that place him among eleven year olds...somewhere ‘tween typical and non-functional autistic? Mikey has always been very unique, even for a child with autism. A doctor once said he’s an atypical typical child with autism. Mikey’s a smart, artistically talented, happy little boy, but his chronological age doesn’t match his emotional or mental development. Mikey is not less, but he's definitely different.

Mikey’s not fully potty-trained. He also has an extremely limited diet and will freak out if you try to get him to eat something new. When at home, or in his classroom, those issues are addressed to keep him functioning, happy, and healthy. It’s mainly when strangers interact with Mikey as if he’s typical (for the most part, his autism isn’t obvious unless he’s stimming badly or being very loud with his echolalia) where my main concern is. When faced with Mikey’s lack of respect for personal space, loud outbursts, and Cheetos-encrusted clothes, most people don’t know how to react. But in general terms, I don’t care what they think or say as long as Mikey is safe and hasn’t done anything intentionally malicious.

Every parent of an autistic child, although some won’t admit it, wants their child to seem “typical.” (You know us in the autism community, we’re all about semantics. You can use some words, but not others. Even though we all know what we mean when we think or say them.) They dream that their child will have that moment in the movie theater. But autism often won’t let that be the case. And, we’ve all come to accept the differences in our child’s and our lives. We work hard to help them overcome those differences, and when they can’t be overcome, we try to minimize them. But, overall, the most important way to address them is with love, understanding, and patience.

When Mikey’s differences become obvious, I’ve never been one to shy away from explaining that Mikey has autism. Heck, I wish more people would ask me so I could explain autism and spread more awareness. Because, frequently, with awareness comes acceptance. And perhaps with that, Mikey can go from somewhere ‘tween to just another eleven-year-old.

I’ve got the tickets and popcorn waiting, little buddy. What movie shall we see?