Mar 27, 2013 0 Share

The A-Word

Autism spelled in letter blocks.

First published August 14, 2012.

As I mentioned in a previous column, my son is headed off to college this fall. “This fall” is now imminent; we can count down by days rather than months the time left before he is off on this next phase of his development. At the same time, I am faced with a new class of senior students, for whom the upcoming school year will be our “last chance” to impart upon them the knowledge and skills regarding what it will take to have the best chance of success in the adult world.

In looking at what last-minute words of parental wisdom I want to convey to my son, I am coming across some overlaps between these words and the words of educator wisdom I want to convey to my students this year. It’s like one big Venn diagram in my head, so to speak. For example, the first, biggest, and most obvious—yet at times most easily overlooked—issue is self-advocacy. This is a coin with two sides and all sorts of nooks and crannies in between. On the one side of the coin we have the issue of standing up for oneself and knowing when and how to effectively self-advocate.

When my son was registering for his first semester classes, he came home with a schedule that appears more than a bit on the intense side, especially when one takes into account the fact that he plans to audition for his college’s marching band. His intention had been to take four classes his first semester, which seemed reasonable given the plans he has for extracurricular activities and factoring in a semester’s worth of Advanced Placement credits in his favor. So after meeting with an advisor, he is scheduled for more credits than I took in any one semester in college. And that doesn't even include the potential for marching band time constraints. When I asked him about this, he explained that he felt as though the advisor was “forcing” him into taking a certain number of classes. So I had to ask: Did you disclose your developmental history, son? In other words, did you tell him about your Asperger’s? Did you tell him that you had a plan in place that would allow you a little bit of breathing room as you make the adjustment to living in a dorm hundreds of miles from home and taking college-level classes and meeting all new people and possibly participating in a top-notch band and so on and so forth. No, he did not disclose his disability, nor has he even been willing to entertain the notion of registering with the school’s disability services office. He will sink or swim on his own merits as far as he is concerned. Not to be a “smother mother,” but I feel this is a mistake on any number of levels and one which I am powerless to control. I cannot make him self-advocate. The stigma is still out there, after all, as much as we would like to believe it is diminishing. My son is an incredibly brave, intelligent young man and he is scared to death of what people who are just meeting him will think of him if they know that part of what makes him brave and intelligent falls under the spectrum of autism.

The mirror image of this conundrum can be found in one of my senior students, whose reluctance to acknowledge his disability and its practical implications is calling into question his ability to succeed in the adult world in less than a year. In his quest to appear “normal” he has placed certain restrictions on what he will and will not do in his transition preparations, and the parameters he has set forth  are doing little more than hindering his chances to make that transition a smooth one. Like my son, he is incredibly self-conscious that others will judge him based on that word, Autism, and all the prejudices that come with it. So once again I am powerless, which for a closet control-freak like me is a terribly stressful place to be!

So can any words of wisdom come from this? What do I tell these young men, and the others like them, other than what it took me over 40 years to learn for myself and hope they will not be content to wait that long for the message to sink in? I will tell them this: The best strengths you will find within may very well come from “the A-word” and you’ll never know for sure unless you embrace that which goes to the heart of who you are. Good luck, gentleman—I am pulling for you!