Lots of people told me it would get easier as my children got older. They wouldn’t be so needy or demanding and they would become increasingly independent.
I am not sure if they grasped the ‘lifelong disability’ part of autism but having two autistic teenagers definitely hasn’t got any easier. In fact, I am probably caring for them more now than when they were younger!
Raising autistic teenagers is completely different to raising neurotypical ones.
Independence isn’t guaranteed in any way and navigating hormones they don’t understand and communication difficulties with even more peers and professionals involved adds stress that is completely different to that of raising younger children.
High school is such a different experience with my children being one of hundreds each teacher sees daily. Each day my children have to cope with so many transitions, demands, expectations, social pressure and time pressures with far less support to help them through.
Then there’s the pressure to conform, to fit in, to grow up.
They may, like my daughter, mask all day then break down or meltdown at home as the pressure gets released. They may feel they have to hide what they genuinely enjoy for fear of being mocked by others.
The social skills that others take for granted might be extremely confusing and misleading making things awkward or upsetting on a daily basis. The realisation they are different and the struggle to accept that is so difficult to manage especially during the years of puberty and high hormones.
Then there’s their changing bodies, the growth spurts and all that comes with puberty: hair, breasts, moustaches and periods. Explaining all this to children who hate change is a huge challenge and not for the faint hearted! Preparing them when you can’t say exactly when something will happen sends anxiety sky rocketing and causes so much frustration.
It’s the years when social interaction becomes much more nuanced and complex too causing huge anxiety to my autistic teens who still think in black and white and take everything literally. ‘Are they laughing with me or at me?’ becomes a daily worry. ‘Are they really my friend or are they just using me?’ becomes a nightly question I struggle to help them answer.
As my children have aged, the difference between them and their peers has widened greatly.
The autism is more exposed, open, and visible and they are more vulnerable than ever. The balance between trying to protect them whilst letting them experience the world to learn and grow gets trickier and harder by the day.
I want them to be proud to be autistic, to embrace exactly who they are without fear but am I setting them up to be bullied and excluded by society or should I watch them struggle to mask and blend in so that they make it through high school without being a target?
That was my struggle until my daughter had a complete breakdown and is now home schooled and my non speaking son was placed in the most complex class in his special school.
Now they are free to be exactly who they are but they both still need me now more than ever.
To all those parents raising autistic teens: I get it. You are not alone. Take each day at a time and remember this too shall pass!