I see a smart, funny, talented, kind, passionate 15 year old who works so hard every day to try and fit in while also trying to be himself.
His peers, however, look through different lenses.
They see someone else. They see a quiet boy who seems to prefer to be alone, not saying much more than hello. They see a teenager who is smart, kind and musically gifted, but, they know little else about him. They see a classmate pass by in the halls, making little eye contact and making even less small talk. They see someone who is different, who sometimes imitates voices and movie lines, but, struggles to find words of his own. They see "different" and even if they may not think "less", they don’t know how to do "more".
I'm not sure what Ryan sees when he looks at his reflection. I think perhaps a combination of what I see and what his peers see. Someone who is smart, funny, handsome and kind, but, different enough that he doesn't quite fit in.
I was recently asked by an aunt trying to understand her nephew's autism, whether she should tell her nephew not to behave a certain way "so he won't get teased”. My immediate response was, "Hell no, let him be himself", but, then I remembered, not everyone will see that child the way his mother does, the way his aunt does, the way I do.
It's a fine line between helping an autistic child know what is acceptable, neurotypical behavior and wanting him to feel free to be himself. I walk that line with Ryan every single day, never wanting him to feel "less", but, knowing that being a part of the neurotypical teen world, he at least needs to understand "more". Free to be me, comes at a cost.
Ryan has said, “it’s unfortunate that I was born with autism”, so I know that there are moments, perhaps days, that he wants to be just like all those neurotypical teens, blending into the masses. I was a teenager once, so, I get it. I understand how desperately the desire to fit in, to be one of the gang can be, and I realize that for most of us neurotypicals, we can make a choice. We can think to ourselves, do I want to fit in so much that I change how I look, what I wear, how I act, who I socialize with, what substances I put in my body in order to be accepted, or do I say, "Screw 'em! I'm gonna be me, like me or leave me". We can make the choice. For autistic teenagers, making that choice is so much harder because more often than not, their body and their brain won't allow them to choose.
Ryan wants to fit in, but, he wants to be comfortable with how fitting in feels. When we are in the car and the song Cool Kids comes on, Ryan sings the chorus loudly and wistfully: "I wish that I could be like the cool kids, cause all the cool kids, they seem to fit in". Being cool comes at a cost and most days, Ryan's brain and body don't feel like paying.
Ryan wants to wear the cool clothes that EVERYONE is wearing, but, the Nike socks pinch his legs and the Joe Boxer socks do not. He wants to sit in the student section of the home football games where all the cool kids sit, but, trying to understand the various social happenings is so difficult that sitting next to dear, old mom is safer. Sometimes Ryan sees the other kids laughing and acting wild and wonders what it would feel like to act a little crazy, maybe bend the rules a bit, but, his rigid thinking just won't allow it. Ryan wants to have a friend, a friend that he says more than "hi" to, but, since he believes he has “said the wrong thing over a thousand times", the risk is not worth the gain.
Free to be me comes at a cost, and it ain't cheap. In order to fit in, Ryan has to sacrifice so much of how he feels, how he processes information and how he interprets the world and that's a high price to pay. No matter how cool the cool kids seem.
So, toning down my initial, knee jerk reaction to the sweet aunt worrying about her autistic nephew "being teased" for being himself, I would say this: Yes, kids and adults with autism should absolutely feel "free to be me", but, you are right, being so free may cause teasing and isolation. Then I would proceed to tell her how it's done in this house where we walk that fine line very carefully.
I remind Ryan daily that he is perfect just the way he is, and that being "different" is not bad, wrong or weird, but, I also give him examples of what the neurotypical world may do instead. This way, I am reiterating the importance of him being himself, but, letting him know other kids may do it a different way. Neither is wrong or right, one just happens to be more accepted by the majority.
One day, I hope Ryan realizes that the majority have it all wrong, wanting so desperately to look and be like everyone else, but, today, as a teenager, I know fitting in, no matter how uncomfortable it may feel, is important. As his mother, I know that no one will ever see him the way I do, but, I know in time, he will be free to be himself. For the people in his life that really matter, they will see his differences as something to behold, not something to look down upon, and they will accept him freely, at no cost to him.