The Road to Success: Growing Up With Autism

When I was a kid, I was something of a handful. I acted out in class, antagonized my peers, and was generally a disturber of the peace. I got punished with detention more times than I can count and spent so much time in the principal’s office that I still remember what it looked like exactly—16 years later.

The Road to Success: Growing Up With Autism

I had such significant issues with self-control that it must have come as little surprise when, at the age of nine, I was diagnosed with autism.

It was a breath of fresh air to finally have an explanation. No one had to wonder any longer: why does Riley keep disrupting the teacher when she’s trying to teach? Why does he shout and curse and hit people when he’s frustrated?

Why does he play with other kids’ food in the lunchroom even after they ask him to stop? Autism was the answer to those questions, as well as many others. It revealed, once and for all, that nothing was wrong with me—I was just a different kind of normal.

Nonetheless, the road to improvement was a long one. We knew why I had issues with defiance and aggression, but that didn’t mean the problem could be solved overnight. I understood that it was wrong to hit another boy with a hockey stick simply because I thought he was “making us lose,” yet in the heat of the moment, I couldn’t make myself not do it.

I remember thinking, after an incident involving a soda can and a classmate’s face in sixth grade, that I was a monster; I hated myself for being so unable to control my behavior. And I also remember thinking that I was going to be that way forever. The thought scared me, but it didn’t feel like there was anything I could do. No matter how hard I tried, I simply wasn’t getting better. When seventh grade came, things got even worse.

Seventh grade was a departure from everything I was used to. It meant going to a new school, with new peers, and having seven teachers instead of just one. Overwhelmed by all the changes, I coped by doubling down on my troublesome behaviors. I poked and prodded classmates over and over without their permission, had meltdowns during classes, and frequently refused to do assignments.

My social life, what little of one I had, was also affected—I retreated into my thoughts and imagination more than ever before, preferring solitude to the company of my peers.

The transition to eighth grade came with yet another change in scenery. My parents, in conjunction with my therapist, decided my current school wasn’t a good fit, so they had me transferred to another one that was all the way across town. I wasn’t happy with the decision; I wished they’d stop moving me around and just give me the chance to settle down somewhere.

Yet, as it turned out, the new school was exactly the change that I needed. Maybe it had something to do with being so far away from what was familiar, or maybe it was because of teachers who understood me and my condition better than the ones I’d had before. Maybe it was simply because I’d gotten older.

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Most likely it was a combination of all those things, and other factors besides. What I can say is that by the time eighth grade was over, I was calmer and more well-behaved than I’d ever been before—and I’d made some new friends, who to this day have remained an invaluable part of my life.

If you’re a parent of a child on the autism spectrum, you’ve probably had moments when you’ve wondered: is it all going to be okay? Maybe those thoughts creep up when other parents won’t stop glaring at you because your child’s throwing a tantrum in the grocery store, or you just found out he tied the neighbor girl to the railroad tracks for the fourth time in a week.

Your child is nothing to be ashamed of, whatever the reason. It’s normal to be worried about your child’s future. Speaking for myself, I’m sure I worried my parents more than once—and as I said before, it wasn’t just them. I was worried, too. Would I still be as disruptive and ill-behaved at age thirty as I was at the age of 12? No one really knew.

The answer, thankfully, is no. After eighth grade, I continued to improve. My grades got better, and I continued to make new friends throughout high school. I attended college and did a passable job, earning a bachelor’s degree in English literature. Now, at the age of 28, I’m working hard at launching a writing career.

I still get mad sometimes, mostly at video games or on the road when drivers honk at me for doing nothing wrong, and my organizational skills could use some work—seriously, you don’t want to see what my room looks like. But it’s been many, many years since I last hit anybody with a hockey stick, or did anything equally violent or disruptive.

So if you’re worried about your child, don’t despair. Even if he/she is struggling, know your child wants to do better, but that improvement won’t happen right away. Time, change, hard work, and—above all—family and friends will make a difference in the end.

This article was featured in Issue 89 – Solutions for Today and Tomorrow with ASD

Riley Odell

Riley Odell lives in Fort Collins, Colorado. His experiences as an autistic person have given him a unique perspective on the world, which he incorporates into his writing whenever possible. In addition to time spent trying to build a writing career, he reads a good deal of fiction and plays far too many video games.

  • Avatar Laura says:

    Thanks for this article – it really helped me as I’m a parent of a 5yo girl with ASD struggling with aggression.

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