As I read social media feeds this week, some parents of teens and young adults chronicled battles over kids staying home and away from their peers during this season of COVID-19. Teens insist their parents are the “only” ones staying home while “everyone” else is at the beach. The adults only act out of love, a little fear and civic duty. They want to keep their own children safe because they love them, but they also want to protect the vulnerable population. Being a teenager is tough, adulting is harder.
I sympathize with these parents and then chuckle a bit to myself. I, too, am the parent of a teenagers. The youngest is a fifteen-year-old boy, and we are not having any battles over social isolation. You see Matthew is an expert at social isolation, an environment he craves and thrives in. Parenting an autistic child, teenager or adult, contains lots of challenges, at least one around every corner. Almost every season of life is more difficult than for a neurotypical individual, learning to talk and walk, finding the appropriate medical team, education, puberty, employment and so on. Yet on rare occasion I find myself in a season of parenting that is easier because of Matthew’s autism and how it manifests in his behavior.
Matthew doesn’t love school or other opportunities for socialization. I will not say he hates school, because we discourage the use of that word in our home, except when it comes to snakes (Mrs. Mommy hates them) and fire drills (Matthew hates those). Let’s just say school is not his favorite and he reminds me of that every morning as we prepare. He does, however, understand that he has to attend and he has to follow the rules. He thrives with the routine and predictability of school. We work diligently following summer break and Christmas break to get him entrenched in the new schedule as soon as possible for everyone’s benefit. On the other hand, he treasures his time at home.
He has been preparing for “social distancing” for years. He sits just apart from whomever else is on the couch, very careful not to be too close. He likes to walk alone and does not want to hold my hand. He does not automatically reach for a hug when he sees old friends. He prefers parallel play to interactive play. Wherever we might be, with family or friends, you can usually find him nestled away in a chair or on the floor with his screen of choice, headphones and Buzz. The setting may change but his preferences do not. Currently, he loves his Yogibo, a Matthew sized beanbag that he burrows in and watches his VHS movies while listening to the Wiggles music on a different electronic device, like listening to a Wiggles channel on Spotify. In his own words, he loves to wear “comfy clothes” and “stay home all day”.
When the gravity of the Covid-19 situation in the United States became apparent last week and school cancelled for first two weeks and ultimately four weeks, I was reluctant to tell Matthew. I expected him to be immediately jubilant and he was not. He skeptically replied “we have no school this week and no fire drills.” I confirmed, I do not know if he heard kids and teachers talking about the possibility at school or overheard my phone conversations in the car. Either way, he did not appear surprised. After confirming he did not have to “go” to school physically
Monday morning, he reluctantly began work at the “Parra Academy for Wayward Boys” (Walker is home from college as well). We eased into our curriculum with some “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” for reading, Kahn Academy for math, “Move and Groove with the Wiggles” for physical education, Melody Makers 850 for music and our backyard for science. Every day he asks if he has to go to school that day or the next and he is thrilled when I say “No, but you have to do school with Mrs. Mommy today.” He has not asked to go to the beach or to hang out with friends. He asks for “French fries, chicken and diet coke with no ice.” He asks for Disney+ and PBS kids. He sends Walker and I out of the game room because he wants to be alone. Social distancing in the comfort of his own home. Easy, right? He’s been practicing for this for years. I am sure all of my fellow autism and special needs parents are chuckling to themselves as they read this because at some point in our child’s life we became experts in social distancing, by necessity. Who knew it would come in handy one day?