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Heavy Meddle: My Son Is On The Spectrum And Headed For College. I’m Freaking Out

A mother worries that she’s worrying too much about her son, and the bad decisions he might make. (Ben White/Unsplah)MoreCloseclosemore
A mother worries that she’s worrying too much about her son, and the bad decisions he might make. (Ben White/Unsplah)

Dear Meddleheads — We’re on the lookout for more letters for Heavy Meddle. If you’ve ever considered seeking advice, now is the time. So click here to send your letter, or write an email.

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Dear Steve,

I am the mother to three boys. My oldest son is going to college next year. He is going to be living at home so he won't have too many loans — actually no loans this coming year due to all the scholarships he has gotten. He excelled academically in high school. He won an award for his volunteer work. He also won a statewide award for a community action project and is currently at a national competition.

He is on the autism spectrum and although he's excelled in school, he can often times miss the obvious answers in life. He can also be very rigid, and when he gets something in his head, he doesn't deviate from his path. This can be a good thing, but it can also be a bad thing depending on the situation he is in. He also tends to dismiss things that my husband and I suggest to him, because he thinks he knows better. After the fact, he often comes back and admits he was wrong. It seems sometimes he argues with us to just argue with us, especially me. This can lead to some epic arguments that often devolve into yelling.

I'm struggling to let him make his own mistakes and not be upset when he doesn't listen to the advice I give him.

Recently, he was at a job fair with my husband and my husband suggested he go over and offer help to the people who were setting up the fair. He argued that they had enough help and when my husband told him that it would make a good impression, he continued to argue. After it was too late, he realized that he should have spoken up and helped. This is the typical behavior that we see when we are trying to guide him.

In fourth grade, we didn't even know if we could get him through grade school, let alone high school, due to his behavioral and academic struggles. The fear I had for him then has continued, despite where he is now. He's come so far and he's worked so very, very hard to overcome his struggles. He's also one of the most empathetic and caring kids I know. Yet, I'm struggling to let him make his own mistakes and not be upset when he doesn't listen to the advice I give him. How do I let him make his own mistakes and grow from them? Does that mean I need to stop offering advice? Or does it mean I should only offer advice if he comes to me? What do I do if I see him going down the wrong path?

Sincerely,

Over Involved Mom

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Dear Over Involved Mom,

You’re doing great, OIM. And so is your son.

I’m not just saying that to make you feel better. I’m saying it because it’s true. My God: Look at the objective circumstances here! You have a son on the spectrum. A decade ago, you didn’t know if you’d be able to “get him through grade school” let alone into college. Not only is he heading off to college next year, but he got a scholarship based on his academic excellence and won a statewide award for a community action project. That’s the very definition of doing great.

So my first piece of advice is this: Give yourself a little credit. Actually, give yourself a lot of credit. You and your husband have clearly done a remarkable job and raised an outstanding human being. That’s the big picture here.

Within that, though, are real anxieties, ones that go beyond being a parent dealing with a teenager. You’ve got a teenager who’s on the spectrum and who just happens to be heading off to college. My sense is that this looming reality has you and the rest of your family stirred up. As well it might. It’s frightening for any parent to face a child heading off to college, because it means losing a large measure of control.

But as you appear to recognize, that loss of control is natural and necessary. It’s how kids become independent. That doesn’t mean they always make great decisions, only that they are free to make their own decisions, and to cope with the consequences. That’s how children become adults.

Does this mean you’ll suddenly stop wanting to offer your son counsel? Or stop worrying about him? Of course not. Nor does it mean that you can’t offer him advice, if you feel he’s “heading down the wrong path.” But you also have to have some trust in him, and in the job you’ve done as parents.

(Annie Spratt/Unsplash)
(Annie Spratt/Unsplash)

Take a look at that episode you describe, in which he chose not to help with the set up of that job fair. Some part of him probably needed to resist the control your husband asserted, however gently. But another part of him clearly recognized later that he wanted to help. That’s the aspect to focus on — that his impulses are essentially generous and that he’s capable of revisiting his decisions. That’s terrific! What’s more, a lot of the parents of teenagers I know would be delighted to have a son spending his time at a job fair, rather than, say, zoned out in front of a video game.

I’m not trying to be a Pollyanna here. I recognize why you’re feeling anxious. And if that anxiety continues, and especially if it spikes, I’d suggest that you seek a little counseling to help you work through some of your feelings about your son’s impending departure. I suggest this because much of your life as a parent has been marked by worry, and some of that internalized worry may be impervious to pep talks from well-meaning advice columnists.

As a rule, OIM, the best predictor of the future is the past. And what I see, overall, is a kid making heroic decisions, as well as parents who have been there for him every step of the way. It’s natural for you to feel worried about him. But don’t let that worry cast a shadow over your pride — both in him and in yourself as a mom. Find a way to trust yourself a bit more and you may find it easier to trust him.

Onward, together,
Steve

Author's note: Once again, I’m offering my best counsel. But even better would be for Over Involved Mom to hear from other parents who have teenagers, or college students, on the spectrum. How did you deal with these sorts of anxieties? Please consider offering your counsel in the comments section below. And please send along a letter to Heavy Meddle, if you haven’t. — S.A.

Heavy Meddle with Steve Almond is Cognoscenti's advice column. Read more here.

Steve Almond Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Steve Almond is a writer. His new book, "Bad Stories: Toward A Unified Theory of How It All Came Apart," will be out in March 2018. He hosts the Dear Sugars podcast with Cheryl Strayed.

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