When I had Alex I thought I knew what I was doing with this mother stuff. When I had Alex I thought I knew what was best for my child. When I had Alex I thought good behavior and academic aptitude were paramount in children and would demonstrate to the world I was a good mum. When I had Alex I thought I knew what love looked like.
And then I had Joshie and I realized just like Jon Snow, I knew nothing!
For the first few years of his life, I called him Blondie. First off and quite obviously because he had beautiful blonde hair. But it also struck me he reminded me of Clint Eastwood’s Blondie: always slowly surveying his environment, mysterious, a man of few words. And he wore a hat…and Joshie always seemed to love hats of any kind. Anytime we went to the store, ate dinner or nipped to the park, it always seemed that a viking, astronaut, dinosaur would join us. Often it was just a hoodie but every time I pulled that hood down as we got back inside and with my mother’s sage advice ringing loudly in my mind that I wouldn’t feel the benefit otherwise when I stepped outside again, that kid would just immediately turn around, looking into my soul with a cold hard stare and pull it back up. I’m a slow learner but eventually I got the message that somehow, even if I didn’t understand why, the hats were of benefit inside too!
Anyway, time passes and little toddlers grow up exceedingly fast despite a Momma’s protests. My baby is now a “tween”. Oh what a joy! No seriously. It is. After I’ve had a glass of wine to calm my fraying nerves anyway. I would be lying if I said it was easy. And I would also be lying if I said I wasn’t enjoying watching him learn to navigate the burgeoning responsibilities of junior high he has to face. The independence he has to accept. The maturity he’s developing which demonstrates he knows when the very independence he craves needs a helping hand from Mom or Dad. Dad taught him how to brew coffee today much to his delight-the boy loves a coffee. But I guess that’s the same for all parents watching their offspring head out into the big wide world.
I am a self confessed wannabee helicopter Mom. I struggle to stand back and let him learn for himself. His neurodiversity means he doesn’t always follow the typical path. He has a long list of diagnoses that describe his learning differences and it’s often presented him with challenges. (You can read about our journey to diagnosis here).
Funnily enough, autism was the one we were scared of the most but for him, the challenges of being autistic seem to be caused by us neurotypicals being offended by his honesty. To people who don’t know him, his total, unabashed and forthright honesty is mistaken for rudeness and being argumentative. Seriously, just don’t ask him if you can’t handle the truth. And the hardest thing for him to understand is why people are offended by the truth. It’s heartbreaking when I see the tears welling in his eyes on occasions when I’ve had to sit him down and explain his bluntness has upset someone. It’s never, ever, never his intention to be rude and hurt feelings. He’s just learning how to pander to unspoken, undefined, inate social rules his wiring sees no need for.
An example of this happened as we journey through these unchartered covid homeschool waters. He had an issue that was preventing him from being able to fully participate in his class. He approached his teacher and explained the music on the podcast was distracting him from the actual words he was supposed to be listening to. He struggles with loud noises (despite being one of the loudest people I know) and he couldn’t concentrate to work. So began an epic tennis volley of emails. Josh and me on one team, his teacher and case manager on the other side of the net. Everyone was trying to score but covid had blurred the lines of the court. His IEP, which defined the rules of the game, and which had been very effective in school was no longer able to be followed. Nobody’s fault. Virtual school just doesn’t have the capacity to support it effectively. I’m working so I can’t support him fully even. The crazy thing is I know we were all actually on the same team. His teachers really wanted to see him win, but the virtual environment divided us.
He stood his ground concerned he was upsetting people but seemingly unable to concede, whatever the consequences. It reminded me of the time I was reprimanding him for hitting his brother in the face: “I didn’t hit him! I missed.” He always stands by the truth, bless him.
The issue I struggled with the most was trying to balance his needs against the teacher’s capabilities in a virtual environment. There were occasions I have to be honest, when even I doubted his stance. Why couldn’t he just ignore the music? But he continued to hold firm becoming more and more upset as we encouraged him just to try turning it down so the emails continued back and forth. Trying to decide if the ball was in or not! It got to the point where I dreaded opening my emails as I feared there would be a new screenshot of a perfectly blunt conversation he’d had with his poor teacher who was trying really hard to understand and support him.
The problem was, whenever I read the emails, and tried to find a way to support his teacher’s concerns…his own concern was still valid and the buggar had a bloody good point. We’ve often joked he should be a lawyer as his logical thinking and arguing skills are brilliant. (But not a defense lawyer because ya know…sometimes, your client isn’t innocent and Joshie’d drive them to jail himself!) It was like chastising the Devil’s advocate. You can’t win. You can only concede with grace. Or actually, I had to tell him to give me a minute and ignore my nervous giggles as I tried in vain to find the right words to support his teacher’s complaints. We had hard conversations about his approach. But telling an autistic kiddo who is very literal that you catch more flies with honey was not my greatest parenting moment. It didn’t go as badly as the time I swam up behind him in the pool, declaring myself a shark so he made a split second decision and punched me squarely in the face. When I asked him why, he told me that’s what you do in a shark attack! Nonetheless, he did take some of it on board and tried hard to adapt his manner. But like I implied: the truth hurts and as much as he could try to change the words to be more sensitive, he couldn’t change his message. So the volley of emails continued until his teachers were able to find a compromise.
And a crazy thing happened…after finally finding a fix (subtitles), he started working. Whaddayaknow! The kid was right! He wasn’t at any point trying to be difficult. He wanted to participate but recognized the barriers. In advocating for himself, he’s earned himself a reputation of being argumentative and rude. He can be but as his Mom I see it as frustration instead. His social skills weren’t great pre-covid and let’s be fair, he hasn’t peopled for 7 months. I think we’re all a little rusty there. But he has taken on board our comments. Today, he commented on how my hair looked nice (I straightened it yesterday) and I asked him if he preferred it straight or how I usually have it…”I’m not answering that-I don’t know which answer you want to hear!” I would still describe his advocating skills as a work in progress but he is genuinely trying hard to make that progress.
He starts back to school next week and I am hoping once he settles in and gets to know his teachers, they’ll see how dedicated he is. To his work. To his ideals. He does need a little more support than others to see nuances and for those good old social skills. But if ever you needed someone to support you, you couldn’t pick a better doubles partner. His tenacity and integrity continue to amaze me (and keep me a loyal customer at Specs)!
I guess what I’m trying to say is when we first heard “autism” on our radar, we were scared of what it meant for his future. My biggest fear about Joshie’s flavor of autism now, is that people see his anxiety and frustration and mistake it for insolence and disrespect when that couldn’t be further from the truth. I think in Joshie’s case, autism gives him a safety net that us neurotypicals don’t typically have. We’re often too scared to speak up for fear of what others will think. He wears his heart on his sleeve. He is confident in his needs but doesn’t yet have the life experiences to know the fixes. There are many challenges he faces daily and I worry so much about middle school but if we truly listen to him first, he’ll tell us what he needs and we can work out the chalk dust together.
And if you do take the time to get to know him, you’ll have a wonderfully loyal, and funny friend and if you’re really lucky, you’ll probably get to enjoy the best tasting bread you’ve ever had. Keep shining your way Joshie!