The View from Sixteen

My book describes a decade in my son’s life, from the time he was three (and first showing signs of autism) until he was 13. So readers frequently want to know what’s happened since then.

At a talk I gave last week, a parent told me she’s rasing a younger child with autism, and spoke of her own apprehension as her child approaches adolescence. “How,” she asked, “does the teenage Ezra compare with the younger Ezra?”

It was a timely question. As it happened, Ezra’s sixteenth birthday was last week. He was eagerly anticipating the day. Ezra enthusiastically celebrates the first day of every month and the first day of each season—just because—so you can imagine his exuberance leading up to a birthday.

As he informed friends and loved ones about the upcoming milestone, I noticed that he kept calling it “my sweet sixteen.” I found that charming, but I also pointed out to him that it’s usually girls who have sweet sixteen parties, not boys. We try to avoid gender stereotyping in our household, but still, I thought he should know. It’s one of those subtle social things that float by him, unnoticed.

Years ago Ezra’s doctor explained to us that when kids like him hit adolescence, “all bets are off.” What had been working can stop being as effective; the hormones play tricks on the neurotransmitters. She also warned us that often the teen years are when children with autism realize they are different, and how isolated they are, and that can make them sad. That concerned me. Ezra has always been a happy person, and our fondest hope for him was that he be able to retain that essential joy he carries with him.

So I understood how the mom in the audience felt. I thought of those old movies, where the damsel is caught on a railroad track as the train approaches. You watch, helplessly, as the disaster is about to strike. Of course the teen years bring these kids the same kinds of change and challenge that any of their peers faces; I just found it difficult to imagine an unhappy Ezra.

The good news in our case is that the teenage Ezra is remarkably similar to the younger Ezra: He still loves Pixar movies and otters and the color red. He still asks dog owners in the neighborhood about their dogs (“How old? Male or female?”). And he still eagerly counts down the days to the release of the next animated feature.

And he’s still happy.  That doesn’t mean he doesn’t get frustrated by the occasional homework assignment or by the daily scuffles that come with being one of three teenage brothers. In that way, he’s normal (or “typical,” to use the parlance of the autism community). But at sixteen, he retains his joyous essence. He still sprints from the front door to the school bus every morning. He still exults over encountering a Golden Retriever. He still tears open birthday presents—That Disney book! A Target gift card!—with exuberance.

What’s different—and delightful—is that as a teenager, Ezra has become increasingly self aware. He knows he has autism, and has some understanding of what that means. (He doesn’t view it as a negative, and perceives that both his strengths and some of challenges stem from his brain’s wiring.) But it’s not just that. With each passing week, he seems more aware of the larger world and his place in it.

And then there’s this change: Almost weekly he tells me about a new friend he’s made: the girl in his theater program, the boy at his animation class who shares his passion for Pixar and the Simpsons.

I remember feeling the kind of apprehension about adolescence that mom at my talk expressed. I’m happy to report that at age sixteen, most of the news is sweet.

* * *

Other parents: I’d love to hear your answer: How is your teenager different, how the same?

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