My son, now 20, was always a shy, socially awkward kid who managed to fit in just enough in grade school that we didn’t notice an underlying issue. As a high-functioning little guy in the gifted program, he was just a smart, creative, quirky kid.
But over time, we noticed his circle of friends grew smaller and smaller. Old friendships faded away, and new friendships failed to form. Kids stopped inviting him to their birthday parties or to hang out, leaving a gaping social hole by high school.
In 9th grade, my son got diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder that makes social interactions and communication difficult. People with Asperger’s often miss the nuances of facial expressions, body language and social cues, making it difficult to connect with others. Cue the beyond-the-typical-teenage struggles in the friend-centric world of high schoolers.
Through it all, I learned a lot about having a son with special needs. In particular, I’ve learned five things as a parent of a teen on the autism spectrum.
1. Don’t give in to guilt. I look back now and think, “Why didn’t I see the signs?” When every autism article tells you the earlier the diagnosis and treatment, the better the outcome, it’s easy to succumb to feeling like #parentingfail when your child doesn’t get diagnosed until his teens. But I had never heard of Asperger’s until my son was about to enter high school, so “what-iffing” myself gets me nowhere.
2. I can’t fix things anymore. When my son was younger, I arranged playdates for him and knew his friends’ moms. But when my son got to the tween and teen years, I was an outsider. Besides the fact that kids at this age take control of their own social life, I didn’t know most of the other moms because my son didn’t really have friends. I was on the outside looking in.
3. Be his best friend. When my son sat home alone almost every weekend, my husband and I made sure he could count on us for fun and friendship. We played board games, watched movies, went bowling, rode bikes, played mini-golf and did just about anything else that would make my son smile. We also made sure he felt comfortable confiding in us. He might be alone, but we never wanted him to feel lonely.
4. Celebrate the small wins. When the tiniest social victory happened — like when another student sat with him at lunch — I’d high-five him. I praised every social step forward, pointing out that each small success builds on the other. His self-esteem needed this. As his biggest fan and cheerleader, I wanted him to savor even tiny triumphs.
5. Focus on hope. Despite years of rejection, my son keeps putting himself out there, and I’m so damn proud of him for that. In his senior year, he invited some kids from art class over for a pool party and a handful of them said yes. To this day, they’re still friends. In college, he joined the marching band, went out to eat a few times with some band kids, and even met a classmate for a movie. His resolve, and occasional social wins, give me immense hope.
Author’s Bio: Lisa Beach is a freelance journalist and copywriter. Her work has been published in The New York Times, Good Housekeeping, Parents, Eating Well, and more. Check out her writer’s website at www.LisaBeachWrites.com.
Everyone needs a girlfriend!
Sign up to receive our free weekly newsletter every Thursday.