Years ago, I learned to accept that Nolan’s Autism diagnosis meant our family’s life would always be much different than that of the typical family. I’m being sincere when I tell you that my mentality has not changed as my son moves closer to adulthood.
I think about all the cool stuff that comes in that 16- to 18-year-old window – the things that make a lot of teens break into a happy dance – and I’ve convinced myself it’s OK that Nolan won’t get to partake in them. No drivers license for you, son? No worries, because dad is willing to be your chauffer. You’ll never get to vote? Hey, sometimes I want to write “NONE OF THE ABOVE” in all caps – with 10 exclamation points behind it – when I turn in my ballot on election day.
But today, on Valentine’s Day, I’m thinking about all the things a young man his age should be experiencing – the multiple trips to the drinking fountain as he works up the nerve to ask out the girl he’s admired from afar, dinner and a high school dance, that first awkward but sweet kiss – and I’m well aware that none of that was meant to be for Nolan. That stinging feeling in my heart isn’t courtesy of one of Cupid’s arrows. Rather, one of those knife throwers you see at a circus has nailed me square in the aorta.
Puberty and all the nastiness that comes with it worked its way into Nolan’s body some time ago, and it’s still going quite strong. I swear he recently grew to eye-level height to me in the span of three hours. That hair under his lip is getting more noticeable by the day, so the day of having to crack open the electric razor for the first time and help him shave as I try to avoid being put into a chokehold is close at hand. Things are, um, shall we say, starting to get very active for him below the waistline.
And as far as the opposite sex is concerned, Nolan is very aware of females. I mean, he’s always had a soft spot for the ladies, from classmates to teachers, paraprofessionals, and therapists on whom he used what Cindy calls his “flirty eyes” in an attempt to get out of working. It’s just become a little more noticeable as of late.
Screen time now includes frequent viewing of a YouTube Kids channel called “Whitney’s World” and a gymnast named Whitney Bjerken – who, I discovered Sunday, is Nolan’s age and has now branched out into the music industry. Before that, Nolan was enamored by an attractive Eastern European Olympic gymnast whose name I won’t even try to pronounce lest I butcher it, and who could do some amazing things with a ball that looks like it came out of the toy aisle at Wal-Mart.
Watching young ladies on an iPad is one thing. Interacting with them face-to-face – especially for someone like Nolan, who also is nonverbal – is another.
Nolan has always had a certain charm when it comes to females – a charm that my late father had and unfortunately for me, skipped a generation. I still remember his kindergarten teacher telling me and Cindy during one parent-teacher conference that Nolan was quite popular with his classmates – especially the girls, she added with a laugh. All of his playdates between kindergarten and the summer between second and third grade were with girls who had been in his class. He was the only boy one of the girls in his fourth-grade class invited to her birthday party.
Unfortunately, the time Nolan has gotten to spend with his neurotypical peers has diminished significantly to almost nothing between the end of fifth grade and what is now his sophomore year. I think that overall, teenagers are more accepting of students who have developmental disabilities than they were 35 years ago when I was in high school. But I know based on past reports from his teachers that the other students have seen him in his absolute worst moments. And while for the most part the students ignore him if he’s yelling or playing with his saliva when I pick him up from school, I’ve wondered a couple of times if one of the groups of girls walking away is laughing at him, uttering “OMGs” in rapid-fire succession, and using terms that aren’t exactly complimentary to someone who’s disabled.
Dating and everything that comes with it, including being rejected and having your very soul get squashed like it’s a cockroach – not that that ever happened to me, of course – is a rite of passage. Even though he can’t tell me, I think it’s safe to say Nolan has never even thought about going on a date. But I have.
Pre-Autism diagnosis, I hoped there would be a young lady or ladies who would see the great kid Cindy and I see and become smitten with him – it didn’t matter if it was the captain of the dance team, a cross country runner, or the quiet girl with glasses who was in a couple of his classes. I looked forward to sharing with Nolan what I knew about women, even if it only would have taken 15 seconds – 20, tops. I looked forward to meeting the girls he dated and, when they weren’t looking, smiling and giving him a nod of approval. And even when things didn’t work out, I would be there to remind him that his soulmate was out there, and that true love wins in the end.
I try very hard not to be bitter when I think about the fun things Nolan missed out on when he was younger, is missing out on now as a high school student, and that he won’t get to be a part of in adulthood. I succeed for the most part.
There still are days when I look in the mirror and have to remind myself to keep a stiff upper lip, but they’re fewer and farther between than they used to be. I wear a suit of armor that would impress Tony Stark. Nolan’s challenges are many, and they always will be. I can’t change that, so I’m always going to do the best I can to make his sure he’s happy in the world in which he lives.
On a day like today, I really wish that world included having someone special in his life.