Over the past couple of years we have increasingly allowed Frankie more independence. We have also expected more responsibility. For the most part, he has been able to rise to the challenge, but like any adolescent he has struggled with that balance of independence and responsibility. As parents we have struggled, too. In this episode we continue to see Max take on more responsibility, especially since he is needed to "be more grown-up" in the wake of his mother's cancer diagnosis. He and his family seem to be handling this transition well. In the long run this will make life much easier for them and for Max.
Granting any adolescent more independence can be anxiety provoking for parents. When your adolescent child carries a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder, it can be very anxiety provoking. Many times, parents of children diagnosed with ASD fail to begin the process of allowing more independence and demanding more responsibility. They don't allow their son or daughter the opportunity to experience more independence. They don't demand more responsibility and thus keep their child from learning more about being an adult. Not allowing for this growth can lead to more serious problems with social functioning than already challenge the child/young adult diagnosed with ASD. If we allow our children diagnosed with ASD to experience the typical tasks of adolescence, however, we also give them the opportunity to eventually enjoy a more adaptive transition to adulthood.
For me, loosening the restraints on Frankie has been an act of faith. I have had to trust the community that we have helped to establish for him and our family over the years. I have let the school and the community take on some of the responsibility of monitoring his independence. We have been very fortunate that we live in a community where this has been possible. There are teachers who look after Frankie, and there is his "posse" of friends who keep an eye on him at school and help or confront him when appropriate. The city knows who he is and we get reports from neighbors about what he is up to while hanging out at school or in the city square. We are vigilant, but I remember that Frankie has the same right to fail as every adolescent boy. Our job is to be there to help him recover as best we can. The message for me in this episode is to give your adolescent diagnosed with ASD the freedom to grow and to fail. At the same time, create a loving and supporting community that can help you as your son or daughter reaches out beyond the safe confines of the family.
As I write this in mid-December, I can't help but reflect on the tragic events in Connecticut that happened just a few short days ago. I have no idea what was going on with the shooter or if he had a diagnosis of any sort. What I do know is that it reinforces for me the lesson that we as a community are responsible for the safety and security of all of our children. I believe it is my job as the parent of a child who struggles to make sure the community is there to support him. I must ensure that he gets what he needs from our community, schools, health providers and mental health professionals to be the most productive and independent man he can be. I pray that I am up to the task.
Written by Roy Q. Sanders, M.D.