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Navigating the teen years with a son on the spectrum

Social situations are different

Peter is a 17-year-old Hudson Valley native. He tests his boundaries, searches for freedom and looks towards the future just like any other boy his age.

With three teenagers in the house, there is always a learning curve for me as the Mom. When do I let go? How much freedom is too much? What rules change because each of my children has different strengths and weaknesses?

I also have the added challenge that my almost 17-year-old son, Peter, is on the autism spectrum. Throughout his life, it meant I approached milestones differently than with my two daughters, who are now 15 and almost 20. I am finding the always tricky teen years a bit more challenging with Peter.

Encouraging socialization
In his early teens, Peter had to be more than gently encouraged to participate in anything outside of school. He did not like to do anything after school until Backyard Sports, sports clinics for kids all the way from preschool to eighth grade, became an option. He explored several sports each year and had one-on-one volunteers teaching him the ropes. That eased him into social activities without having to always deal with the stresses of being on a team.

In middle school, I signed him up for a cooking class as an after-school activity. He begged not to go. We made a deal. He would try class for two weeks and then we would make a final decision. "Okay, but pick me up early," Peter said.  The next week I received the more typical teenage response: "When you pick me up, text and wait in the car, pleasssse." It was followed later that day by a text reminding me not to come inside to get him.

That class was the beginning of a more socially involved teen. He joined Walking Club through his school and now competes in the Pioneers program, a sports league for students with special needs.

READ MORE: Surviving teen transitions

Yearning for his freedom

Suddenly, Peter wanted to go out with his friends beyond the planned activities. That is when it got tricky. Peter wanted to go out to lunch or bowling with his friends and without his parents. He saw his sisters do it all the time. "Mom, why does Kit get do to it and not me?"

I explained that I started both girls out slowly. They would be in the mall. I would be in the food court. They would go to a movie, with me a theater or two away,
or I would sit in the back row sometimes. Slowly, I would expand the freedom and drop the girls off but be right there at the end of the movie or allow some time at the mall without me.  He needed those first steps too. It took a while for Peter to agree, but he accepted that we had to take a few steps toward freedom, not a big leap.

His first shot at being alone was at school football game. I spent the time in my car in the parking lot just in case he experienced sensory overload with the full bleachers and the loud cheering. Peter did great (texting me to remember not to come to the stands), so we tried lunch at a local burger place which has a Starbucks right next door. "I will remember to wait for my change this time," he says with a huge grin before he goes in (since he almost left money at the bowling alley a few weeks before).

Somehow, I still get that lump in my throat, the same one I had when I sent each of my children off to preschool. Not a sad feeling, one of excitement with concern.

Is he ready for me not to be right there?

READ MORE: The benefits of physical activity for a child with special needs

Looking towards the future
Other rites of passage are still question marks. Will Peter ever be able to drive? At the moment, I think it is too early to tell. For now, we both agree that he gets
distracted too easily to be behind the wheel. When we both think he is ready, I know there are special driving classes to address his particular needs. Until then, he is happy to be a passenger and learning how to navigate public transportation with his class in school.

Peter has declared that he does not want to have a girlfriend or wife ever. "Too complicated," he says adding, "I will be the cool uncle."

Peter and I are still figuring it out. I have told all my children this is not just new for them, it is new for me too. We have to adjust from time to time and have patience.

There will be many more moments where I watch my 6' 3" son take independent steps toward adulthood. Moments we are so glad to have.

Patrice Athanasidy, who lives with her family in Westchester, has written for numerous publications in the tri-state area. She is an adjunct instructor at Manhattan College in the communication department.

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