The Denver Autism Wheel

Autism Transition #2: elementary school to middle school

Posted on: February 16, 2012

It’s hard enough just being a preteen (tween…whatever…see??), but then you have to go and add in autism and a bunch of your peers suddenly acquiring a social/emotional awareness around you, and you have a perfect stormof hormones, velocity and increased demands on your attention, perception, ability to think abstractly, and figure out what the heck is going on that makes an autiemom’s teeth rattle.

Eustacia Cutler (Dr. Temple Grandin’s mom) once opined that adolescence and autism are the stuff of the devil (see me quote that in my last post, too: think it’s been on my mind??) but no matter what you call it, Chris is in it, and now it becomes my job to do my best to see him through Transition #2.

Transition #1 (preschooler to elementary school) wasn’t fun. Chris didn’t speak much until he was about 4. His Kindergarten class had its “bridge” ceremony at the end of the year (which is a whole other kind of brain damage), and the teacher asked each member of the class what they might want to be when they grow up. Chris told her “a typer or a writer.”

I was there. I heard him clearly. I worked from home when he and Little Brother Luke were preschoolers. I am a writer. It warmed my heart that he wanted to follow in my footsteps. But he didn’t like hearing his voice amplified over the microphone, so he didn’t speak up. His teacher “translated” for him: “He says he wants to be a typewriter!” The parents all chuckled. A typewriter. Ha ha.

Aside from the absurdity that any child born after 2000 would even know what a typewriter is without checking Wikipedia on his mom’s smartphone first (feel free to roll your eyes, too), that was just one example of why Chris didn’t talk much. It took a long time for him to formulate his thoughts in the first place; then to have those thoughts mangled by an adult who wasn’t listening particularly carefully…well, it just wasn’t worth it.

Enter Transition #2 (elementary to middle school). Where we live, elementary school is K-5. Middle school is 6-8, and high school is 9-12. Chris talks a lot more now than he did as a Kindergartner. He has some “friends,” who know he likes Big Ben, history and science, and scary Halloween stories. He doesn’t know much about them, though. When most of his classmates gossip or play basketball at recess, he still likes to swing on the swings. He’s definitely at a turning point with his peers when “play” turns into conversation and there is a much higher emphasis on small talk than expertise.

He turned 11 back in December. He’s currently 5’ 4” and weighs about 105 pounds. His voice changed over the summer (so he now sounds like my adult brother, which freaks me out). He’s a good foot-and-a-half taller than the shortest kid in his class, and he’s as tall as his teacher. Puberty: meet autism.

My goal for sixth grade for him is to peel back the para support at school and let him get as much work done on his own as possible. Also: that he not get locked in his own locker. We started the transition process when school started up after the new year, and so far, things look good. His middle school staff understands that “it’s not cool to hang around with grown-ups,” so they fade para support as much as possible. Hopefully, that’s a step toward my first goal.

My second goal is a bit more complicated. I have a lot less control over whether it works out kindly for him. A big part of this transition is for me, too. Chris isn’t my little boy anymore. I can’t fix all of his problems anymore. I can’t get between him and the bullies.

And, of course, that wouldn’t be good for him, either. I shouldn’t solve all his problems for him any more than I should do his homework for him. Yes, it’s going to be a bumpy ride. Yes, we’re going to have some uncomfortable conversations in the next couple of years. Yes, he’ll probably be called into the principal’s office to explain himself.

But it’s not a race to adulthood. It’s a process. Transition #2: he’s going to learn to stand on his own two feet. It won’t be pretty at first. But it isn’t pretty for anyone, and keeping the bad guys away for him just teaches him to rely on me instead of himself. The (probably ugly) lessons he learns now will help him become more self-reliant and confident as an adult. My challenge is to back off a little and let him learn.

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