By Beth Ann
We always noticed that our son, Will, lacked reasonable fear and had poor impulse control as a child. If something looked interesting, even if challenging, he pursued it fearlessly. And frankly, he enjoyed the attention he got following such accomplishments. For example, we visited family in South Carolina when he was two years old. He had been in pools since infancy but had not yet been taught how to swim. Nevertheless, before we could put his floatation vest on, he jumped in the deep end without a thought! My husband jumped in and fished him out of the water. Will was largely unphased. When he was seven, we were enjoying the last block party of the year with our neighbors. We all lived on a cul-de-sac and convened three times for festivities between Memorial Day and Labor Day. It was a terrific neighborhood populated with kind parents and many children around the same ages as our three kids. Seldom did we get traffic around the cul-de-sac, so it was ideal for kids to ride their bikes and play whatever games struck their fancies. I went into our house to get meat for grilling and to bring out my side dish for all to enjoy. As I walked through our yard over to the spot where there was a canopy, I wondered where my youngest child was. I approached the group, scanning the nearby yards and asked my husband where Will had wandered off to. My husband pointed upward at the top of the large pine tree in the middle of our cul-de-sac at which point I almost fainted from panic. Will was three quarters up the tree giggling and waving at me. He had climbed so quickly that he was halfway up the tree before anyone noticed. Fortunately, Will was able to climb down without injury. It was a terrifying moment for me but for him, it was exciting and fun. He truly didn’t seem to experience any fear associated with being so far off the ground without any real security. This fearlessness carried through until late middle school/early high school. I, however, spent almost two decades worrying about his safety. As he has gotten older, he seems to exercise a bit more caution than when he was younger. Frankly, I see more trepidation in social situations than I do in physical situations. And given how young people form friendships online these days, that cautiousness is probably a good thing. He has been hurt in the past. Those negative experiences have taught him to exercise more caution when developing new relationships. And perhaps he has become more careful due to the general anxiety he suffers due to his neuro atypical brain.
There is one thing Will vocalizes freely to us, one thing he fears deeply: growing up. He tells me this often. And frankly, I haven’t felt he has matured enough to do the things his neurotypical peers are doing at his age like driving or going away to college. Kids with ASD are often a bit behind in emotional and social development. It is also common that they struggle with problem solving, low empathy and reading facial expressions and social queues. Will had shorter-term friendships in middle school. Finally, during his sophomore year of high school, he found a great, very diverse and supportive group of friends. The group of six or seven have maintained their “besties” statuses for going on three years. Will has had some struggles in middle and high school academically but not because of his intellect. His motivation was low. He struggled to accept responsibility for doing the work associated with his classes. This led to many an argument over missing assignments and inadequate effort. However, he started 12th grade in August and guess what? He will be graduating early at the end of this month and most likely finishing his last semester with straight A’s. We knew if he put forth the effort, which was really what we cared about, the grades would likely be good. Something started clicking with Will last year. The stable friendships, ongoing therapy and progressing emotional maturity is making a huge difference. He is starting to talk about what’s next for him and even asked for help recently regarding a mental health issue he's currently struggling with. To see him ACTIVELY working on his emotional well-being is utterly remarkable. In the past, he seemed to expect passive participation in therapy to fix his issues. A couple of years ago, any therapy that required actual effort or practice from him, like Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) was “stupid.” As an example, after trying a mindfulness exercise twice, Will declared it totally ineffective. I explained to him that building new habits takes about a month of daily focus. I could practically see his head exploding at the thought of having to put forth daily effort on being mindful. Now, he is journaling and completing workbook exercises as part of his therapy. He still vocalizes his fear of adulthood but I’m seeing evidence that his confidence is growing. As he continues to see positive outcomes, because of his efforts, he should begin to feel more capable of handling adult responsibilities. And with any luck, he’ll start to enjoy the freedom and independence that being a grownup provides. I am so proud of the work he is doing and I’m really excited for his future!