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Thirteen Going on Three

March 6, 2023

A tale of an autistic adolescent boy going through life’s natural changes when change is his worst enemy.

Thirteen Going on Three

4:53am: ”Mom?” A low whisper from my 12-year-old son. I give no response.

“MOM!!” A louder whisper I can’t ignore. Here we go. I fly out of bed, through the dark (I’m a veteran to navigating the path between my spot in bed to my child’s) and reach out for his hand.

“What happened? Are you ok?”

“Something happened in my bed, I don’t know what, it’s all wet.”

You can imagine how fast my thoughts flash through my mind at that moment:

  • Shoot, I didn’t think he was going to have this happen yet
  • We didn’t even have any “talk” yet
  • When I brought up sex and health education, he very maturely answered: “I’m not ready.” Why did I let him lead?
  • Why am I the one to have to help him? I’m a woman!

“Ok, let’s take care of it, I’ll get a towel.”

I get to work. Going through the motions to “fix” a problem can be numbing—just DOING the task; let thinking be for later.

I have a son who at three years old was diagnosed with asperger’s syndrome (the label at the time for just one flavor on the autism spectrum). He was kicked out of pre-school, then tested and evaluated and tested some more.

My entire journey as a mother of this boy has been one of learning. I’m never without a book, blog, article, or conversation with a fellow mother with similar experiences. I am constantly learning and relearning how to be the best support I can for my son. I knew puberty would be the next big “known” hurdle for us, I just thought I had a little more time. I’m also a divorced mom so I have a harder time relying on any male influence for him.

All in all, you can imagine I didn’t go back to sleep that morning. I laid there, percolating on how I would talk to my son about his experience. I ran through scenarios in my head and ran through my mental-Rolodex of what I’ve learned from others to inform my approach. I also knew I needed to lead with love and compassion, no matter what.

There’s one more thing you should know about how I parent my children: I am a TALKER. I want them to express themselves openly, so I lead with complete openness myself. I cry in front of them, I name my emotions in front of them, I validate, I reinforce, and yes, sometimes I just hide away when it gets to be too much.

Let’s talk about it

The time came and my son and I casually chatted on my bed about his experience. I asked open ended questions like: “How did it feel?” “What did you think was happening?” And then I sat and listened.

I will tell you, sometimes he is my number one teacher. After I scientifically described as much as I could in a fact-based way (that appeals to his learning style), he said: “So okay, but my mind is not ready for this. I do not WANT this.” 

Which led me to a beautiful response: “Sometimes our bodies are ahead of our mind. Sometimes they are informing us of what to pay attention to, what to look out for. Your mind will get there. Just let your body lead for now.”

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The journey through puberty

It’s been about a year since then, and life through puberty for my son is just getting harder. From an observer’s point of view I can see he is overcome with hormones pumping through his body, hormones he can’t control. I can see his need to belong in overdrive. I was recently given a link to Maggie Dent and her point of view on boys through adolescence is spot on. She says:

“There are many masks—the smart alec, the clown, the jock, the bully, the cool dude, the shy mouse—usually with a long fringe hiding their face. They especially need this mask at school as it is really much like a war zone for boys—so many rules, expectations, different teachers, classes and being challenged to do tasks they are not sure they can conquer. Many boys are struggling with heightened levels of anxiety that they mask and have no understanding they even are having as they simply mask anything that may suggest vulnerability of any kind.”

Now imagine adding the unique struggles of our autistic babies on top of that! My son never did imaginative play, so the ideas that Ms. Dent brings up about masks puts into perspective how hard it must be for my son right now. Not only is he battling with all the chemical and physical changes, he is playing catch up to put “masks” on each day to try and fit in. It must be exhausting.

For every growth phase in my children, I see an opportunity for growth in me. I’ve written down some affirmations to remind myself, from my son’s perspective, how hard life is for him right now:

  • Every time I smell his stench, instead of yelling to go put deodorant on, I’ll say in jest, “Boy do I love hugging you and being around you, but I’ll have to wait for my nose to clear up!”
  • Every time I need him to perform any self-hygiene (I know many of you will agree this was never easy!), I will try a checklist instead of barking commands
  • Every time he grunts, or replies with “In your butt!” or simply ignores me, I will take a deep breath and remind myself that this is a mask and it’s hard for him to wear. Lead with unconditional love and we will both get through

I was once told by a friend who had a son who was 13 when mine was three, that many of the behaviors of a 13-year-old mirror that of a three year old. Testing, experimentation, need for belonging, no sense of others. I reflect on what I learned from those years as a mother. For my son on the spectrum, routine was gold. Routine was a life savior. The better I could organize his day and communicate what to expect, the better day we had.

Recently, I had a perfect opportunity present itself to test my theory on routine. Bedtime is its own type of torture in my house, but it was over, lights out. I heard some commotion and went back upstairs to find my 13-year-old son in the bathroom with his iPad. I lost it!

“Control your pubescent urges because now is NOT the time!” I said in a huff. The next day provided a new talk track for us to connect on and I thought, what the heck, let’s try the routine approach now. When I was about to go to the grocery store and leave him home alone, I yelled down to him: “Now would be a good time for any of those bodily urges, honey!”

His response, “You can’t put THAT in my routine MOM, gosh!!”

I hope you are laughing by now because, what was I thinking? Live and learn, and always love. It can be a bumpy ride, but take as many moments as you can to pause, breathe, and reflect. You’re doing an amazing job!


Dear mums of smelly, unmotivated, lazy, moody and confused 14-year-old boys by Maggie Dent

This article was featured in Issue 126 – Romantic Relationships and Autism

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