Teen years bring enough turmoil. Imagine also being severely autistic.
I have to say, the years where I went through puberty were not the most flattering years of my life. I think most people will empathize when I say those years were a time of confusion, raging hormones, and poor decision-making. But imagine if you couldn’t even express that teenage angst…how would you channel that turmoil of emotions? Recently when I volunteered and worked with autistic teenagers I began to realize that these teens were faced with another battle, a battle to express themselves during these pubescent years.
It was a Saturday morning and I woke up early to go and volunteer a few hours of my weekend. When I arrived at the center I was matched with a fifteen-year-old boy named Thomas (all names have been changed to maintain anonymity). I had no prior experience working with autistic kids, but I loved working with children (I was previously a camp counselor and babysitter). So, I thought it couldn’t be too different. Needless to say I was quite mistaken.
I like to think I am pretty good with kids. I love working with them and at one time wanted to become an English teacher. But when I got to the center and met with Thomas, I had no idea I was in for a completely different ride. The lead volunteer introduced me to him and he gave a squeal of delight. “He’s excited to meet you,” she told me with a smile on her face. I was super-excited as well and began playing basketball with him. After about thirty minutes of playing ball, my boyfriend at the time walked over to see how I was doing. Thomas turned and asked me if he was my brother. I chuckled and told him that he was actually my boyfriend. Thomas’ face dropped and he consequently began to interact with me less and less. Instead he ran around and didn’t seem to want to acknowledge my presence. I wasn’t sure if this was a sign that he didn’t want to play with me anymore or if I should keep pushing to interact with him.
I was faced with an internal struggle: continue to push or take a step back? I aimlessly chased him around the gym asking him what he wanted to do but he seemed to ignore every one of my questions. It was almost like I wasn’t there at all. I wasn’t used to this. Most children I’ve worked with in the past either crave attention from their peers or are generally pretty responsive to one-on-one interaction. The hardest part is generally gaining their trust, which is usually earned within an hour of genuine interaction and patience. Yet, with Thomas it was completely different. I didn’t know how to earn his trust; I didn’t even know how to have him give me the time of day. But I wasn’t going to give up. I kept trying to run through all the tips and tricks I had picked up throughout the years while working with kids.
I was standing next to him when he began interacting with another boy and his partnered buddy, Marisa. They were playing an altered version of tag and Thomas seemed to want to join them. Marisa was about my age, late teens or early twenties and sported jeans and a loose grey t-shirt. She introduced herself and asked if we wanted to join them. Relieved that I would finally be able to interact with Thomas in a game he was interested in, I happily agreed. It was during the game that she had bent down to tie her shoe when her jeans slid down a bit and a large part of her underwear was exposed (ladies, I’m sure you know what I’m talking about). Thomas, who happened to be standing behind her when this happened, completely shifted his mood and he could not stop staring. Feeling the pant slip, she immediately pulled up her jeans and continued with the game. But for Thomas he was no longer interested in the game. Instead he continued to follow Marisa around and would purposefully go behind her and look at her backside.
He did this for about an hour and I could see that Marisa was beginning to feel very uncomfortable with him following her around. I asked him if he liked her and he responded that he liked her backside. After awhile he became even more bold and started tickling her from the back. I wasn’t sure what that meant when I first heard he told me he liked her backside, but then I put two and two together. The boy was fifteen years old, prime puberty time. He felt changes in his body, didn’t understand the social mores, and thus didn’t know how to express what he was feeling. Imagine being fifteen and not understanding what was happening to your body.
For children who deal with autism, puberty is an extremely challenging time. It’s not that their autism is getting worse doing these years; it’s the fact that they’re becoming teenagers. While their body is maturing, their mind and mentality may not be developing as quickly as other teens. I could only imagine the confusion puberty might cause in an autistic teenager. These years are already some of the toughest years to overcome and not knowing how to express these feelings of change can feel suffocating. Although my experience with autistic teenagers is not extensive, I think it is important for people to be exposed and acknowledge this time of emotional struggle. With society constantly placing pressure to be “normal,” we often begin to outcast people who may see things differently than us. Yet, truth of the matter is, those dreadful teen years are not easy on anyone. For Thomas, these years may be filled with confusion. But with the help of caring and understanding people who surround his life, some of these teenage tribulations can be alleviated.
I left the center that day with a different outlook and perspective on life. Thomas had taught me something that I never really considered or even thought about. It is a challenge that thousands of families battle with everyday, yet because I had never been exposed to the issue, I never really saw it as an issue. I knew it was a difficult and awkward stage in life, but for some teens, this time period is more than some hormonal phase of life, it is also a struggle of self-expression.
photo: ryanvanetten / flickr