The gentleman who is giving Nolan a high five in the picture you see is the associate principal at the high school he attends. There’s no doubt in my mind that his smile was genuine, and he was happy to see Nolan as he approached him. If you ask me, I think my son is a very likeable young man. But I really believe the associate principal has a soft spot in his heart for him.
It wasn’t that long ago that this gentleman was the associate principal at the elementary school Nolan attended. He sat in on a couple of Nolan’s IEP meetings, including one that came toward the end of what had been a particularly rocky school year. I won’t share specifics, but on that particular day I was a bit – OK, very – hesitant about sending Nolan back in the fall. And yet, the associate principal’s presence was reassuring to me. I don’t recall him saying much, but his words and general demeanor made me believe Nolan had at the very least one ally at that school.
I’d like to believe the associate principal was almost as proud as I was this past Friday afternoon. Nolan was marching with his Adaptive Sports League soccer teammates in the high school Homecoming parade. The parade route was maybe one mile, if even, but it was a fairly warm day, and I could tell Nolan was a little tired. At one point on the way back to school he decided to sit down in the middle of the street, with the entire football team just a few yards behind us. It took a few seconds, but his paraprofessional and I encouraged him to stand up and we kept moving without getting trampled, unlike what the football team did that evening to the team of the high school I attended. And the associate principal enthusiastically greeted Nolan as we got within a couple blocks of the school and finished the route.
My son is growing up. This 5-foot-6ish, 200-plus pound, soon-to-be 16-year-old is growing and maturing every day despite the challenges of having Autism and being nonverbal.
This past week was a pretty good one for Nolan. I’d been feeling tired and a little down, so it was the kind of week that came at the right time. It was the kind of week that, in my lowest moments as Nolan went through elementary and middle school, seemed very distant, and at times perhaps unattainable.
I know Nolan’s triumphs shouldn’t surprise Cindy and me, but I have to admit that sometimes they still do. When he reels off several in rapid-fire succession, as was the case this past week, it’s an incredible feeling.
· MONDAY: Nolan had a music therapy session after school. His regular therapist was unavailable. The therapist who worked with him has done so in the past, but he sees her perhaps only twice a year. In the past, sessions with anyone who wasn’t his regular therapist would sometimes result in meltdowns, stalling tactics, or Nolan simply communicating in his own way that he had no interest in complying (“You want me to do what? Yeah, right!”). But he did everything the therapist asked of him. He selected and changed instruments, including his beloved keyboard, without protest. He kept almost perfect time while playing along with a couple of songs – including Johnny Cash’s classic, “Folsom Prison Blues” – and he even changed chords on the xylophone a couple times when the therapist did so on her guitar.
TUESDAY: Nolan and his ASL soccer teammates played their season-opening game at a rival high school. He played 10 minutes out of a possible 40. He kicked the ball toward the goal a couple of times. He didn’t try to yank me off the floor in the middle of the game. And, with the exception of one bathroom break early in the first half, he sat calmly on the bench after the coach made substitutions and watched his teammates wrap up the victory. Nolan’s coach told Cindy and me after the game he was proud of how far Nolan has come.
· THURSDAY: One of Nolan’s teachers flagged me down after school as I was walking with him to my car. She asked me if I would be interested in allowing Nolan to have a job, with pay, folding laundry at school. I thought of all the benefits – added responsibility, working hard and taking pride in that work, Nolan eventually earning enough to start treating Cindy and me to beverages at Dunkin’ Donuts – and I couldn’t say yes quickly enough. The paperwork should be coming home with him this week.
· FRIDAY: The Homecoming parade is a big deal. It’s big, too – each fall sport is represented, the marching band performs, the parade participants receive a police and fire escort, and nearly every student and teacher from the three elementary schools, the middle school, and the high school in the district, which has more than 3,000 students, line the parade route. I knew Nolan wouldn’t sit with his teammates in either the bed of his coach’s pickup truck or in the trailer the coach was pulling, so walking was our best option. The float pulled a couple blocks ahead of us and eventually out of sight, and there were a couple moments when I wondered if Nolan was ready to pack it in. But he made it.
To recap, my son showed he did indeed inherit at least some of my wife’s musical talent. He’s in an extracurricular activity and seemingly enjoying himself. He’s going to be employed. And he got to partake in a big event. It was a week worth celebrating. And I believe there will be many more like it to come.
It’s weeks like last week when I truly marvel at what Nolan can accomplish when everything is right in his world. Autism is an unpredictable SOB, and it has a way of wreaking havoc with Nolan and extending its middle finger at our family just when we’re starting to feel pretty good about ourselves. Dealing with setbacks has always been frustrating for me, and the difficult times literally hurt me to the core. Nolan might not realize it, but something as simple as kicking a soccer ball or walking relatively unfazed down a street lined with loud people does wonders for me.
Whatever the reason or reasons – Nolan’s support staff, the right amount of sleep and food, pleasant early-autumn weather, Jupiter aligned with Mars – a lot of things went his way last week. I know he’ll still have his share of difficult days and weeks, and it’s very possible this could be a headache-inducing, I could use a stiff drink week. But I also know, as do the folks who work with him, he’s capable of working through difficult situations and thriving.
It goes without saying that a week like the one Nolan just had brings me indescribable joy. But it also means a lot to me when others can see his successes and enjoy them as well.