With my stepson Brandon on the verge of graduation, about to step into his future as an adult, I can’t help but think about Willy, who is only a few steps behind him. Willy is in his second year of high school, so when this year is finished he’ll only have two years left. We already know next year is going to be a big year for him, because he’ll have access to classes that will directly contribute to his future. These classes will act as a trial period for Willy, to see if the path he imagines for himself is really one he’d like to take.
It’s not Willy’s autism that concerns me. The thoughts and feelings roiling around in my mind are beyond autism. It’s a matter of personhood.
I think back on my own adolescence. I switched schools at the end of 9th grade, which was the end of my middle school years where I was living at the time. I started 10th grade in a school that started high school in the 9th grade. That one year is all I have that really compares with the experiences of my boys, because I spent my 11th and 12th grade years taking college classes in the evenings at satellite campuses. But in that one year, my 10th grade year, I had an experience similar to what Willy will be able to experience next year.
My high school didn’t really have the classes I needed, which is why I ended up taking college classes. But the solution that first year was for me to take an hour for independent study. My English teacher monitored my work, but the nature of my work was up to me. The independent study class was for me to practice my writing. During that semester, I was free to write whatever I wanted as long as I finished the piece and turned it in. At that time in my life, actually finishing a piece of writing was the biggest challenge for me. I would get so discouraged that my skills didn’t match up with my ideas that there were many pieces that I just could not finish.
Even now, finishing a piece of my own writing—writing that is entirely my own design—is the hardest part for me. That’s why it took me so long to produce my memoir. That’s why I’m still working on Marketing for Authors. That’s why I had to write my latest novel out by hand, forcing myself to go on despite the flaws, in order to reach the end. Because I do see the flaws—big flaws like poor organization, incomplete thoughts, insufficient development—and I want to go back and fix them. Doing so increases my skills and allows even more thoughts to bubble up to the surface, so it can become a never-ending cycle—unless I forcefully end it.
It is a major challenge for me to simply finish a piece to my own satisfaction. Facing that challenge is something I first learned to do in that class, that period of independent study, in high school.
The things you face in high school and the things you learn about yourself are things that you will carry with you for the rest of your life. They inform you about who you are and how you handle them shapes who you will become. This growth, this development, this stage of maturation is something that is beyond autism, beyond disability vs. ability, beyond the art and science of it all. It is a factor of personhood.
Part of the struggle we face as parents is knowing when to let go. As a parent, I want all my children to succeed, to pursue their dreams, to become who they know in their hearts they can be. I don’t want to see them fail. I don’t want them to face those consequences. Yet, as a person, I know that failure and consequences—facing the results of our own decisions head on—are what distinguishes an adult from a child. As parents, we want to save our children from that. But we can’t. We do them a disservice if we try.
So, what’s beyond autism? The same thing every other parent faces: The challenge of letting our children become adults. The truth is that it will happen whether we let it or not, but that our decisions impact the quality of their adulthood. It’s a heavy burden all parents must bear. Like our children’s, our choices have consequences.