I can't even believe those words go with this face. But they do. In less than two weeks my sweet faced toddler will be in high school.
Yeah, I know he's not a toddler anymore and he didn't just go from 3 to 14 in the blink of an eye, but, my gosh it sure feels like he did.
It feels like just yesterday he was running from room to room scripting whatever Thomas the Tank Engine VHS Tape he was currently obsessed with or hiding in the bathroom from Santa Claus. It feels like yesterday I was wringing my hands over the transition from daycare to kindergarten. It feels like yesterday I was worried about the chaos and social cast system of middle school and how he was going to survive.
Guess what? Yesterday is gone. Finished. Over. And now, here I am today, worrying about the dreaded high school cafeteria, also known as (shudder) "lunch".
Autism or no autism, the high school cafeteria, a place designed to give kids a a break from the stresses of Honors Calculus feels more like a battlefield. Sure, during that 41 minute "break" kids are no longer worried about which formula they need to solve problem #5, but, in the high school cafeteria, one wrong move, one wrong "Can I sit here?" and your kid's lunch and their day can blow up right in their face.
There are unforeseen dangers everywhere. Tables that a lowly freshman can not sit. People that a lowly freshman can not speak to. These newcomers can walk in thinking they know just which side of the battle they are on, and hell, they may even be confident that that are actually going to win the battle, then, boom, in one instant the battlefield rules change and your kid finds himself face first in a pile of instant mashed potatoes.
Even for THE coolest kids, the lunchroom can get ugly.
Now add a dash of autism to this battlefield and, well, no matter how much you have prepared your little soldier for each and every skirmish, chances are an autistic kid is not going to escape the lunchroom unscathed. In fact, they may leave with quite a few battle wounds and hightail it to Canada.
Just like there are reasons some young men can be exempt from heading off to battlefields, a teenager with autism may be exempt from dining in the war zone called "the cafeteria". After all, their unique needs certainly qualifies them to dine elsewhere. The noises, smells, social norms and chaos of the cafeteria may be too much, so eating lunch in the library is certainly a much safer choice.
Ryan has been given the option to be exempt from this so called battleground. He could take his exact same lunch he packs every single day and go sit quietly in the library. Alone.
I struggle with that choice. I want to protect Ryan from the imminent danger of the cafeteria, but at the same time, the world is full of battlefields that he must learn to navigate even at the risk of getting hurt. The world does not give you a pass to the library when things get tough. Not to mention, if Ryan finds a table that accepts him, a table that is safe, then I'm doing a great disservice to all of the teens at that table by tucking Ryan safely in the library and not giving them the opportunity to see all he can offer to them during their 41 minute "break".
Each and every kid is different, so each and every parent must decide which battlefields are worth the risk. I decided to take the matter out of my hands and put it in the hands that will be holding the cafeteria tray.
When I told Ryan his options, he said, "I am anxious, but, I want to try." So he will.
In eleven days, I will prepare that once sweet faced toddler for the various skirmishes that may occur in the high school cafeteria and try to help him escape unharmed. I will anxiously await word from him (or a few upperclassmen I have on retainer in an espionage capacity) to see how lunch goes. And no matter the results, whether he winds up feeling like he lost the battle or like he escaped without a single scratch, I will be proud of him for trying.
Ryan is no longer the toddler hiding under the sliding board for me to save him. He no longer needs his General Mother to protect him on every single battleground, because Ryan is learning to fight for himself. And win or lose, that is an accomplishment worthy of some type of medal.