It crept up on me, stealthily like a Ninja. One minute I was watching their father tossing them up in the air, or carrying them on his shoulders, and the next, they are looking me in the eye because they are as tall as me ( one just an inch shy of his father’s height), standing before me with huge feet. Their shoulders have broadened and the skinniest of arms are becoming muscularly defined. Sometimes they sound like kids and sometimes they sound like their father and in between they sound like geese. As their faces morph from childhood to adolescence, their noses look different and their hair has changed. There is scraggly facial hair and pimples, bushy legs and the sprouting of armpit hair and a real need for deodorant accompanied by an intense interest in shower gels and shampoos made specifically for men. There is also very little hot water left after they have showered and my husband and I are finding that we have to make sure we get in our showers before they do or embrace ice-cold water. And as I struggle lately with figuring who is coming up the stairs (they have a similar gait to their father) it makes me a little freaked out and a little sad that somewhere between a bandage on their knee and kissing it better and sending them to their room for the occasional time out, my boys are suddenly becoming men.
Man-child number 1 is Adam. Autistic and smart, living with him has never been easy but it has never been without its joy and fair share of humour. The cut and dry nature of people with autism is really something to behold because they very often get away with saying the things most of us are thinking. Now 15, Adam is still navigating his way around the twists and turns of puberty the best he can. It was a very rough start on the eve of his 14th birthday but it’s gotten better. We’ve been going through this stage with him for just over a year and things are slowly getting clearer now, to him and to us.
You see, now that I have separated the autism from the puberty, I see that Adam is exactly like I was – defiant, moody, manipulative and a “know-it-all”. He has that great need for independence and little need in his mind for his father and me. He is very capable of tending to his needs and why wouldn’t he be when for years I’ve taught him how to do just that? I was afraid if I didn’t make him as independent as possible, I would rob him of many opportunities and put him in a permanent state of dependency. Oh ,no … the push back we get from him isn’t because of his autism, it is because he woke up one day when he was 12 1/2 with zits, a scraggly mustache, a strange voice, almost a foot taller, a shoe size and a half bigger with strange things going on in his pants. Puberty was not a gradual onset for him. It came with a bang with all the nasty physical and psychological changes and on top of it all, he still had to deal with his autism which makes living in the world challenging and confusing.
Like I did as a teen, he feels he is capable of living his life without anyone’s input, most of all that of his parents. He hates my voice. Hates when I tell him to do things and hates it more when ignoring me means he has to hear my voice again. He hates when I sing in the car and ruin the song he’s listening to. He dislikes my maternal fussing and my well intended actions that make him seem like a baby. It took me some time to put it all together, but I got it now.
You see, in a pinch, like when he’s sick or if he needs to have any medical tests done, I’m his girl. He feels safe when I’m with him but the moment any stress is over, he wants me gone. And it is the same with his Dad. In an amusement park, when he’s uncertain about a crazy ride he looks at his father and says, “It you and me, right pal?” and once the ride is over, he prefers to walk a certain distance away from us. It’s kind of like when he was 8 and I would take his hand to cross the street and he would most emphatically shake off my grip – a clear indication that he understood that he needed to look both ways before crossing and he most certainly did not need his mother’s help. One time he put Logan’s both hands in mine so I would not hold his. Then came the riding ahead of me at 10. He knew our route, he understood he had to stop and look both ways at a stop sign or red light and he knew to stay on the sidewalk or on the extreme right side of the road. To his credit, I’m glad I did not have to worry about him because we discovered that his brother tended to be engaged with what was above him or beside him on our bike rides and was a hazard to himself, to us and pedestrians alike.
Yes, Adam James was growing up fast long before puberty and after having people in his face (especially me) showing him how to live in this world his whole life, he was desperately seeking his alone time and independence and as soon as he got old enough and big enough he was determined to get it, except he didn’t quite understand how to gain our trust and show us in a calm and collected manner that he was ready to be in the speed skating dressing room and at practice without us hovering. He acted out in such a silly fashion when all he had to do was say “You can go, Mom” or “I’m okay, Dad”. It took us some time but we figured it out and now he does the majority of the things he has to do in his day, on his own. He still is capable of having a crappy attitude when he is asked to do chores, or asked to be quieter and respect that there are other people in the house who aren’t interested in listening to his music which like any teen he likes cranked up loud. We see his frustration when we want to engage him in what feels to him like an overly long conversation and we understand that when we drop him off at school after an appointment, he prefers to navigate his way back to his classroom just like his typical peers even though we are supposed to walk him back to his life skills classroom. No one wants their parent walking with them through their school….so now we text his teacher to let her know he’s on his way.
Like any teen today, his world is all about his idevices, music, videos, things on the edge of inappropriate and defiance all while seeking this elusive independence as he tries to figure out how to be an adult in this world that is so complex to him. Unlike most teens, it’s hard for him to understand consequence and sometimes he does not have that alarm in his head that tells him it’s time to take a break from the computer when whatever he is doing becomes overwhelming. It is in these moments he breaks down and is more like a child than a young man. We know it, he knows it and sometimes it takes a lot for him to calm down and reset but …we are working on it and progress is being made albeit slowly.
For Man-child number 1 building relationships is still a struggle He has said he likes girls and doesn’t mind having friends but it is clear that there is a “Sheldon Cooper-ness” about him that indicates while he likes being around people, there is no need for close relationships. He does understand privacy and respecting people’s personal space and what is appropriate and inappropriate when it comes to people’s personal space and we revisit this topic frequently so it is drummed into his head. His relationships are compartmentalized and in his world that ‘s nice and organized. Support workers, teachers, coaches, the people in his class.. His father, his mother, brother and his extended family. The people in his life all have a role and a specific time and place but he is not devoid of emotion. There is no doubt in my mind that he knows and loves the three members of his immediate family. What we do, say and think matter to him. The rest of the family members and close friends fall around him in concentric circles depending on how often he sees them. He knows who they are and is content to share a hug or a few words with them and then seek out a space where he can be comfortable, usually with his music. He is certainly an odd ball guy but he is interesting and funny with a sharp and cynical sense of humour. He’s a fierce competitor at times and at other times he’s extremely laid back. He has been able to take care of himself (laundry, preparing food, hygiene etc.) for quite some time now and is able to travel with his team (with us in the stands)and stay in a hotel with a margin of supervision. He has always had a cool and mature taste in music and a sense of fashion that only he can pull off. He is carving paths for himself with his music, his art and his sport and is getting to know his way around automobiles. He has learned to muster up the courage to order his food on his own and has learned to use his debit card to pay for what he needs. He got a job this summer and walked to work every time yet there is still a cap on what he does independently outside of the home. The hardest thing to give him is what he craves the most – his independence. It is a work in progress yet in as many ways we have given it to him, we have to hold back until he matures a bit more and hopefully he will come to understand our decisions. As difficult as this step towards manhood is for Adam, as much as he can be a classic jerk, I am not worried about his future anymore. Even on the rough days, this first man-child of mine has shown me that he is going to find his niche as he makes his way along this unique journey that is his life. His father and I hope that we have and can continue to make it interesting and encouraging for him and that at the end of his days, he would have achieved fulfillment.
Hmm…it’s funny…you never plan on having anything but a regular kid. You never think about special needs or anything hindering your kids in any way but as bumpy as this road is with my son, I wouldn’t change him for the world. He’s Adam and there is nothing about him that isn’t beautiful. At two years to fifty, I see that now. Though the worry is there, it is not as intense nor as frightening as it used to be for me when we were both younger. He and I have come a long way since the days in the play group where it was clear we didn’t fit in. We’ve come a long way from the countless appointments and endless testing at the Alberta Children’s Hospital and I have come a long way from the sadness and level of grief I held inside; the grief that choked me everyday because I was so scared for his future and sorry for myself and for us as a family. Time and age brought a level of reasoning that allowed me to see that Adam was not a tragedy but an opportunity and when I am at my wit’s end I try to take the time to reflect on this musical, artistic, decorated athlete with a strong will and independent nature. When I take the time to think about Adam and all the wonderful moments and people he’s brought into our lives I see that he is also a true blessing. I never thought I would have to have so much control over a life other than my own but I guess it’s more like helping him navigate the twists and turns a little longer than I would have to with his brother…kind of like we did when we were teaching him to ride his bike all those years ago. When the time is right, Tom and Logan and I are going to know when we can let go and watch Adam, the man, take the wheel and navigate the winding road of his life just fine.
*Sheldon Cooper is the main Aspy character in the television show The Big Bang Theory.