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What I want teenagers to know about my autistic son

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Dear Teenagers,

Some of you really get Matthew, you know him, you accept him and you meet him right where he is. You will never know how eternally grateful I am for your kindness and your acceptance. I see your kindness and sometimes I try to express my appreciation, but it makes me emotional and that makes you uncomfortable. So I try to just say “thank you”, even though I never feel like a simple thank you is enough!

Some of you don’t really get Matthew, don’t accept him, don’t meet him where he is. I don’t know if it comes from fear or lack of understanding. I see you too. I see the looks exchanged with friends, the eye rolls, the unwillingness to accept. It breaks my heart. Here’s what I want you to know about Matthew and other kids who are different.


I know Matthew is different. He’s loud. He’s reactionary. He invades your personal space. He gets to wear headphones at school. He likes The Wiggles and Disney, jr. He takes Buzz Lightyear with him everywhere he can.

He chews on his clothes and bites his fingernails. He picks his nose, frankly so do some of you, you are just more sleuth about it than he. He pulls the strings off of his socks. He speaks out in class.

He’s autistic. In medical terms that means “autism is a developmental disorder characterized by difficulties with social interaction and communication and by restricted and repetitive behavior. ” In simpler words, his brain works a little differently than yours and mine, but differently is not less!

Sometimes you focus on the things that are different or that you don’t understand in a person and you miss out on so much. With Matthew, it means you don’t know that he loves pizza and mac and cheese just as much as you do. You might not know that he has been able to say his ABCs backwards since he was four. That he can remember tiny details about movies that the rest of us forget before we leave the theater. That he loves music and is learning to play piano. That he can swim. That he would wear a bowtie to school everyday if it was in the dress code. That he likes to bake. That he takes great pictures. That he loves to go to middle school dances. That he LOVES screens, iPad, computer, phone, dvd player, you name it. Loves them and can figure out things about them without being taught, just like you. He loves Disney Pixar movies, especially all of the Toy Story movies. He can repeat most of Toy Story 2 word for word as you watch it. That he wants to have friends, he just doesn’t always know how.

You may not know that there are reasons for most of the strange things he does. He is super sensitive to noise and is deathly afraid of fire drills, so he wears headphones in school just in case. He bites his fingernails because he is always anxious at school. He is anxious because school is a major struggle for him, he has to adjust to all of the unexpected sounds, changes in schedule, the workload. He has to do homework, like you. It looks a little different than yours, but is equally challenging for him. He goes to therapy after school to learn to do the things that come more naturally to you. He is afraid of fire, even the candles at church scare him. We don’t know why, but they do. Sometimes he does know the answer to the question you just asked, but before he can find the words, you’ve moved on to something or someone else. He processes verbal language slower than you and I do, but processes things on screen really quickly. He is easily distracted, like by a fly on the window. If he tells you he sees or hears something, you should believe him even if you can’t see or hear it. Trust me, he’s usually correct, especially when it comes to bugs and snakes.

He doesn’t do so well in PE because it’s loud and overstimulating and he has poor motor skills, so his coordination is not as good as yours. He would like to play some of those games you play, but they move too fast for him and he gets frustrated.

I’m grateful that Matthew attends school at Sacred Heart Cathedral School where kindness and inclusion are taught and encouraged. I wish we found those values more often at the grocery store and the park.

I initially thought my target audience for this post was pre-teens and teenagers, but as I read through it and make edits, I realize there are takeaways for all of us. Be kind, share a smile or a kind word when you pass. If you see someone sitting alone at lunch or church, ask if you can join them. I hope that you give Matthew, or someone like Matthew, a chance. Take the time it takes to get to know them. Try to find something you have in common, whether it’s pizza or Disney Pixar. Middle school (life) is tough whether you are the cool kid or the different one, so take a chance and make a new friend. A little kindness goes a long way and everyone can use some more kindness in their world.


Matthew's Mom

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