With quarantine comes many missed milestones: concerts, athletic events, senior nights and graduations. Nobody’s fault, but so heartbreaking for kids to miss these classic life experiences.
For teens with autism, life is a lot like quarantine -- all the time.
Although physically present for their milestones, the social connection that makes them joyful is often absent. It occurs to me that many typical teens (and even complex teens who are socially successful) are now experiencing a taste of the quarantine that teens with autism experience daily. Perhaps this strange pandemic experience will level the playing field, so that ‘typical’ teens can be guided to a new appreciation and respect for the experience of their autistic peers.
Meet Drew, a high school junior. A fine saxophone player, exceptional dancer, and fan of the natural world, he has an autism spectrum diagnosis. Each day after band practice, he’d wait apart from the others, listening to music. On Facebook, he’d share pictures with just him, or one or two others. He created these images -- inviting others to take a picture with him – to curate an online image, if only for himself. Drew was acutely aware that he didn’t have friends. He spent the last band trip crying in a hotel room because he didn’t know how to be part of things. His peers didn’t really know how to make him part of things either. It wasn’t anyone’s fault.
Meet Mason, a high school sophomore. Mason is creative and gregarious, loves rap music, plays violin and guitar, and has a green belt in Karate. He tried wrestling, is learning Japanese, and loves Jesus. He is also legally blind and has an autism spectrum diagnosis. Mason is extroverted enough to reach out, trying to connect with kids over potentially shared interests. His efforts are sweet, but perceived as socially “off.” He hasn’t been invited to a school friend’s house since high school began, and he quit wrestling because he didn’t feel part of the team. The coach expected it, but never tried to improve the dynamic. Despite Mason’s efforts, he has no friends at school. No one intends any harm, they just don’t know how to include him. It’s not anyone’s fault.
Meet Connor, a high school senior and my son. An excellent euphonium player with numerous awards, he has perfect pitch and no one is kinder. A member of the National Honor Society, he loves word play, writes beautifully, enjoys walks and drawing, and loves epic fantasies like Star Wars. He has an autism spectrum diagnosis with ADHD. An old soul, Connor wishes he was born in a more formal time with prescribed roles so he could predict people’s behaviors. When he says things in an unusual way, his peers don’t know how to respond. He’s only been invited to school-sanctioned parties, though when he tried to join a group of kids for homecoming one year, they pretended they weren’t going to attend. He wouldn’t have had a great time, anyway. Loud music and large groups aren’t his scene. Those kids didn’t intend unkindness. They wanted to let him down easy. It’s not anyone’s fault.
This is our quarantine.
As I’ve watched posts from fellow parents lamenting the loss of senior-year milestones, I’ve gotta tell you, I’m somewhat relieved. I’ve been dreading them because they punctuate the painful quarantine high school has been.
In this pandemic world, we all miss our normal activities.
Swimming or a music festival, a prom or hanging out with friends. As the mom of a teen on the spectrum, I’m reminded that we are now also experiencing an isolation familiar to my teen and others on the spectrum, a social quarantine that started when it became socially inappropriate for me to schedule a playdate for my kid.
Even though no one is at fault, the season’s disappointments are real. And if there’s a silver lining, perhaps it’s an opportunity to be more inclusive in the future. Are there people like Drew, Mason, and Connor in your sphere? If so, I hope that the isolation this pandemic has brought will help you reflect on ways to extend yourself to them. Given the chance, they have something to offer.
During the pandemic, many of us remain connected. We text and call, post and tag. Physical distancing is not inherently social distancing. The Drews, Masons and Connors of the world experience true social distancing, and that’s happening for them right now. A text checking in would not only be welcome, it’s likely the only one they’ll receive.
The glue that forms friendships is in the activities that spin out of administratively driven programs. Band kids go to IHOP after a game. Wrestling kids play games at someone’s house. Self-organized by teens, these activities inadvertently contribute to the painful quarantine of autism.
I’m sorry you had to join our experience of a life of quarantine. It’s nobody’s fault, but it does feel a little less lonely with you here.
And when your pandemic quarantine is over, I hope you’ll find ways to help other teens leave theirs, too.
Maybe you could nudge your teen to include the lonely in some activities. It will be awkward initially. But I promise, it gets better. And the fabric of community and the young adult you raise will be more inclusive in the best of ways.