Friends – if you have had the chance to stop by the Red Couch at some point during the past year, you are likely already aware that the E man has had his share of challenges during his first year of middle school. To be perfectly blunt – there has been a lot of ugliness throughout this school year now and then sprinkled with a bit of amazingness. Maybe you are wondering why middle school would be anything other than ugly for anyone? I’ll give you that – it’s not often anyone’s finest hour. Puberty, hormones, new found freedom and responsibilities, voices changing, the scent of Axe Body Spray pungently drifting through the locker areas – talk about your good times! Now, throw a medium sized dollop of autism on top of all that and things get even more interesting.
I’m going to own straight up that I struggle with a fair amount of anxiety in my life as a general rule. It’s something I must continuly work on, accept about myself, and treat via my health care provider – aka medication. E & I have this in common – we wear our anxiety outwardly, even when we try not to. (Can you say apple don’t fall far?) I think it’s fair to say that middle school has given both E & I ample practice with facing anxiety straight on – and I’m excited to share with you that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
First the ugly stuff.
E has a reading comprehension disability that makes almost every aspect of school difficult. While he can decode at an age appropriate level, he usually can’t remember the information presented for more than a few sentences. We’ve been working his whole life to help him make gains with these skills, and he is progressing but with more turtle and less hare. As he’s gotten older, he’s become embarrased about this skill deficit, and often tears up and asks us why it’s so hard for him. To see him struggle, want so badly to make progress, and have it be so elusive is the worst kind of pain imaginable. My Mom guilt kicks into high gear, wishing I knew how to help him and I spend many sleepless nights trying to research new strategies.
Middle school has presented new challenges in this department because almost every course is designed around reading to acquire information. E spends portions of his day in a special education classroom, and also has courses with his mainstream peers, which he loves. Once the honeymoon phase wore off last fall, and the real academic guts emerged, I think he sort of shut down for a time, overwhelmed in ways he could not even fully grasp and feeling embarrased about it. The hormones floating around in his 13-year-old body may not have helped either, but that you probably already guessed.
Around the holiday break time, Tom & I were having serious discussions about whether this was really the best place for him. Not for lack of effort (both his and the terrific team of educators he gets to work with), but because he was just over his head in every way, his self esteem battered and his spirit wounded. Of course, as it does in the world of autism, much of this came out in the form of challenging behavior. Calling teachers by their 1st names, telling peers (mostly guys) that he loved them just so they would freak out, and refusing to do what was asked of him. It was not an awesome time for any of us.
So, has everything miraculously turned around since then? Well, no, not necessarily. But maybe something ever better has happened – E believes in himself not despite his challenges, but in unison with them.
Somewhere around January/February, a subtle shift happened. He sort of suddenly “got” that fine line between being properly challenged and being completely overwhelmed and was figuring out the difference. He began accepting some of his challenges in new ways – like asking me to read outloud to him because it was easier for him to understand and he found he enjoyed stories more. Or when I would ask who he sat with at lunch, worried about friendship stuff, he would tell me “it’s not my deal to sit with the same people everyday and that’s just the way I am” or “Mom, you don’t always need to know who you sit with, I just like to listen to different people everyday”.
Soon, he started watching the morning news, and asking questions about goings on in the world, sometimes doing research on the iPad to learn more about things. Best of all, he was just relaxed in his own skin in a way we had never seen, and was such a joy to be with in an easy, natural way.
This kind of makes all the ugly days worth it and more because he’s done all this on his own. He has started to realize his worth and understand that his strengths are numerous, unique and the very best part of who he is. All in all – he’s not as afraid of his flaws because he’s allowed himself to see his strengths.
Earlier this week, he brought home an application form for the Yearbook Staff. He kind of loves to fill out forms of any kind, so at first, when he told me he wanted to apply, I thought it was more about the form than anything. All 3 kids had homework that afternoon, so I was going from 1st grade reading to 5th grade math (ick) to E’s form and back again. He ran a few of his answers by me, and I had to smile as his personal style shined through in ways I’m guessing the Yearbook Advisors don’t always see when they read these applications. One question asked about his flexibility and attention to detail and his answer said something to the effect of “pretty good when I take my medicine”. It was pure E and pure awesome – and frankly, I didn’t even think he fully completed the form and forgot about it – until yesterday.
I picked him up after school, a rocket in one hand and a letter in the other. His teacher had emailed me to say that his class had been outside shooting off the rockets they built in tech ed and sent a few fun pics from the day so I was expecting him to chat about it. He told me he had a great day, and that he wanted me to read an important letter but not until I was done driving for safety reasons (ever the rule follower). When we got into the house, he handed me the paper, and in bold letters at the top it read “Welcome to the 2014-2015 Yearbook Staff!” Holy Crap – he did it!
We delivered some treats to E’s school this morning in thanks for all they do through thick and thin. His teacher was beyond proud of his achievement, and because she’s awesome had already spoken to the Advisors about how to make E’s tenure on Yearbook Staff successful and fun. We agreed that the first meeting next week would likely play to his strengths – sorting and distributing yearbooks. While I can’t say this meeting will be without challenge, it would be difficult to find anyone with a better grasp of every conceivable nook and cranny of that school. Frankly, Elliott oozes Wildcat pride and I’m very excited to see the middle school yearbook next year!
I’m grateful that E has faced difficulty head-on and come out even stronger this first year of middle school. He’s reminded me of something important that I’ll try to remember during the difficult days still to come – this journey will not always be easy, but it will always be remarkable.
Oh – there’s one more valuable lesson E has acquired as a now middle school veteran and it’s an important one – there are far superior brands of body wash than Axe. Peace out.