A child with autism becomes a teenager with expectations

The night before his 13th birthday, Benj came to the door of my office and knocked in his typically abrupt way. “Mommy, I need to talk to you,” he said. “I’m really worried about tomorrow.”

Benj is on the autism spectrum, and special days cause him more than the usual trepidation. I rushed in with reassurances about the specifics that had concerned him in the past. “What’s worrying you, honey?” I asked. “I’ve told the school to do the special gluten-dairy-free treat for you, and remember we’re going to have the home party this weekend.”

But it was not the mundane details of the day that were on Benj’s mind. “Mommy, I’m nervous about becoming a teen.”

“Nervous about becoming a teen” is such a typical Benj way to put it. I’d shared his anxiety when he was younger. For children with communication difficulties, what could be worse than the social maelstrom of middle and high school, with its cliques and pressure to conform? As social situations became increasingly complex and his peers increasingly sophisticated, I feared that literal, innocent, honest Benj would be picked on, manipulated, or excluded.

But as those years actually approached, my fears were largely allayed. Benj is in a small, special education class where each child’s unique set of strengths and challenges is understood. The school has a no-tolerance policy for teasing, ostracism and bullying. There’s no in group or out group and no norm or standard or box to fit into because these kids are all quirky, each in his or her own way.

So I felt no sense of impending doom at the prospect of Benj becoming a teenager — but he did. “When I’m a teen I’ll have to have hang-outs with my friends all the time!” he told me. “And I’ll have to date people! That’s what teenagers do. They hang out with their friends, and they date.”

I wondered where he’d picked up these conventions about what it means to be a teenager. It was only this year that at the suggestion of his school counselor, Benj began to call get-togethers with peers “hang-outs,” chiding me if I referred to them as the now babyish “play-dates.”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top