Autism and the terrible 13s: guest post by Jeff Stimpson

Jeff and his son Alex

When Jeff Stimpson of the Jeff’s Life — Alex The Boy blog offered to do a guest post for me, I was delighted.  For those of us raising an autistic child….especially an autistic boy….the calendar of years is something akin to a map, and whenever the child is likely to start hitting puberty, that’s the part of the map marked with Here There Be Dragons!  I’m not talking about the wise, enchanting, exciting creatures which Ash has grooved on since he pronounced it ‘dwagons’, either.  I’m talking about the hell-wyrms that the symbology off still makes Christian priests twitchy.  Ever since Ann Bauer published  “The Monster Inside My Son” in 2009, the idea of testosterone and Autism combined has turned confident parents into paranoid shipwrecks.  Well, Jeff has a long journey ahead of him before he reaches safe harbor, but he’s already a seasoned sailor of these waters.  His is just one journey — some see calmer waters, some more storms — but I’m honored to share it with you here.  We all need to be each others’ crew, in this.

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The Terrible 13s

My son Alex, who has autism, just turned 13. Hair is sprouting all over his body. He’s started using roll-on. His voice has deepened. Parts of him are suddenly stunningly large. Others don’t seem to be growing at all. “He must be getting very … willful,” says his service coordinator, looking at him in our living room. He’s watching Elmo. I can see his first moustache from here. Yes.

It seems a blink ago that he was a premature baby in an isolette in a neonatal intensive care unit. It was 13 years ago. It was a blink ago – about 15 minutes, actually – that my wife Jill called to say: “We haven’t had a good outing. He’s lying down on the line for the registers and I’ve tried taking his ear and it didn’t work. People are staring. It’s going to take a special set of people for him, and we’re not them.”

“I didn’t like it when he was five and he drank out of puddles, but nobody laughed at him and nobody made fun of him,” Jill says. True. But in the past six months Alex has become more embarrassing than at any time in his life. People are starting to look at Alex, then look away, then look back, as if at a train wreck, says Jill. They never used to. He pitches forward and back on stiff legs. His voice is getting loud and embarrassing as he sprawls on the floor of a store and bellows “Banana!” Jill says that during their recent outing Alex had to use the bathroom.  Jill can’t go in the bathroom with him anymore, of course. She says a boy about 13 came out while Alex was in there. “You could tell he didn’t want to be in there with Alex,” Jill says. “People are starting to react to him.” She also said her legs hurt when she returned with him.

His school – school, that bastion of sanity in Alex’s life – has reported that he needs a 1:1 para-professional to shadow and monitor him so he doesn’t bolt to the playground or barge into counseling sessions with students or into classrooms. “With hormones and puberty and everything going on, it’s becoming a little too much for him to focus,” said his head teacher. Indeed.

An adult recreation program I tried to get him into last month sure reacted to him. They found him in a pre-school room on the fourth floor, with its huge red rubber ball and Elmo books. We all watched him press the ball to his midsection and flip through Elmo books.  “He’s obviously more comfortable in this environment, and we’re not set up to deliver that,” says one staffer, speaking of the big ball and the Elmo books.

He grabs his crotch these days and purrs “Mooooommmmmmmyyyyy …” We tell him to do that in private, when he’s alone. He does it on the sidewalk, too, between bouts of running ahead of us, shouting, bobbing and weaving and biting his arm. “God it’s embarrassing,” says Jill. “I hate to say it, but it’s true.”

Can the teachers, can anybody, help him understand that he shouldn’t leave our apartment and bust in on neighbors? Stop biting his arm when frustrated, stop unraveling and ripping his own T shirts? Can they help him understand the dangers of traffic? “I can’t have him run across the street when I have five kids back here on this corner,” his teacher says.

Busting in at home: There was the couple that we think was having sex. The young woman in the middle of her first brunch for friends in her newly renovated two-bedroom. There was the couple with the great cats. The family with all the expensive ship models in glass cases that I could picture Alex missing by a hair as he darted into their apartment. There was the surgeon. “Do you need any help?” he asked. He wasn’t smiling; neither was his wife. “He took my hand and tried to go right in,” Mrs. Surgeon said. Alex was sprawled on the carpet outside their door.

I bought three white plastic doorknob covers for babies (babies, for Christ’s Sake; Alex is shaving.). Aunt Julie suggests a combination lock. Ideal, but we checked into this back in 2006 when Alex first bolted. You want a what?, the locksmith asked. He figured, after some head-scratching, that a combo lock wouldn’t work that way – the bolt goes into the door jam the wrong way– unless installed upside down.

I’ve sent notes to neighbors, and made Alex apologize in person. “I’m sorry,” he says; I stand there wondering if he knows what the syllables mean. Jill suggests that when he gets home from school, we take him out. “Take him floor to floor. Let him get it out of his system.” This sort of works, for one night.

“Will he get over this?” they asked at a sexuality and autism workshop a year ago. This is the question I asked a prospective babysitter (…babies, for Christ’s Sake…) whom I interviewed this afternoon. You can expect more aggression, said the first. Sure it’s normal, said the second. Great, but once again in my son’s life I feel myself groping for what others find normal.


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Jeff Stimpson, 49, is a native of Bangor, Maine, and lives in New York with his wife Jill and two sons.  He is the author of Alex: The Fathering of a Preemie and Alex the Boy: Episodes From a Family’s Life With Autism.  He maintains a blog about his family at jeffslife.tripod.com/alextheboy, and is a frequent contributor to various sites on special-needs parenting, such as Autisable, The YAI Autism Center blog, and TheFasterTimes.