By Joanna Blanchard
As our youngest child gets ready to attend middle school in the fall, I want to post and re-post this video until everyone sees it and internalizes it: Ethan and I put this together one day, years ago when he was home sick in the third grade.
Despite this big, looming transition in September, this summer has been one of our best ever. But it has also been one of the hardest.
I find myself internally clinging to the last weeks of carefree, total abandon that comes with having to answer to no one about my children’s participation in school. No homework due, no missing art fees, no IEP meetings, no phone calls about missed meds, no emails about what to do when a new behavior crops up, not even a measly picture day reminder slip.
The break is welcome and happy, the kids are tan from playing outside and snuggly with sleeping in daily. Yet I have an underlying feeling of dread that casts a cloud over all of this fun. Normally by mid-August I am so ready for the short bus to come on up the drive and start a comforting routine.
However, this time I am not. In fact, I’m sort of a mess.
I wake up with sore jaw muscles that come from clenching my teeth as I sleep. I find it hard to focus on my work. I cry easily and am cranky with family. I’m not living in the moment as much as I am holding on to it as tightly as possible before things have to change.
A few weeks ago, we hosted a small party to say thanks and goodbye to special education staff at Dan’s elementary school—some of whom have worked closely with us for the past nine years (since Ethan was in preschool). Now that we’re moving on, my husband and I wanted a chance to convey our gratitude, pamper them with gourmet food and chat informally outside their professional “roles.” I was also hoping it would help me feel better. It was a lovely evening with some of the nicest people I will ever have the chance to know. When they arrived, Dan started running happily around the living room. When his teacher left last, he quietly watched her car disappear down the driveway. And then he whimpered, leaking a few tears. And then so did I.
I thought: “Who will ever love him like that again?” This staff and I have been through so much together. We’ve cried on hard days and celebrated so many milestones, years of notes, pictures, stories, and laughter—like a family. I am sad to say goodbye and scared to let go.
I worry that middle school presents opportunities to practice “grown up” social norms, which is important but challenging as even typically developing kids face frequent drama and heartache during this time of life. (Do you remember middle school? You couldn’t PAY me enough to go back there.) How on Earth will Dan survive with any social success? That video was really cool in 3rd and 4th grade classrooms, but will it have the same reception with the older kids? Will they be more worried about “fitting in” or more sophisticated at hiding cruelty?
And I worry that new staff and teachers won’t “see” Dan for who he is. Will he be able to become part of the larger community as he was in primary school? Will he be included and appreciated in his home room AND his special education room? I also am beginning to realize that my ambiguity about this transition is about so much more than moving schools, leaving old friends behind and new challenges.
It’s about beginning to let go of our “little boy.”
The new school seems daunting and so much less nurturing. And while it might be time for Dan to need less nurturing, it also means things that were once accepted and deemed “cute” in elementary school might be labeled “weird” and unacceptable as kids enter puberty. We must begin to learn to see Dan as someone who belongs in this new setting and not try to protect him from all of the world’s scary things. This is part of growing up for all of us.
It’s just so much easier to think of having him as a child forever. We know this life. We are (most days) competent at this life. But life with a teenager or adult with autism is uncharted for us. This transition is just the beginning, a symbol of the impending future. How will I make that transition as more questions about Dan’s future emerge?
As summer progresses and I continue to lay awake nights, I talk to a friend who can relate, as her now-teenager with autism is moving into high school this fall. “We’ve had several people along this ‘journey’ that we’ve had to say goodbye to,” Kari texts in response to my sad little text bubbles. “Feels like a break up.” As usual, she nails it. It totally feels like a break up. A type of deep ache I haven’t felt in a long time.
And with a breakup, don’t we always wonder how a new relationship could possibly compare to the one that has just ended? Will I be able to build meaningful relationships with new people, teach and trust them to really “see” my kid? Kari knows the amount of emotional energy and time it takes to forge ahead with a new group of people who don’t know Dan. She texts: “Dan’s got the magic. The new people are gonna fall under his spell, too.”
I think back and remember what I’ve said to the multiple 20-something sitters and therapists who’ve cried in my kitchen post-breakup. I should take my own advice this summer, and move on.
No matter how much angst I feel, I have to accept that he is growing up, and that things will get harder before they get easier. We will run into misunderstandings, bullies, puberty and heartbreak. I have to let go, be patient, open my heart to new, awesome people in our lives and the changes to come.
I’ll let his magic do its work.