This is the fifth in a series of posts about being a mom with Asperger’s.
As adolescence drags on–yes, some days it feels like it will never end–you may run into some serious challenges. The child who thought you were the coolest mom on Earth suddenly thinks you’re a moron. She doesn’t miss a chance to remind you that you can’t do anything right. That you know nothing. That you’re uncool and out of touch.
These words–and worse, the way they’re carelessly hurled at you–may hurt, but don’t panic. Teenagers all over town are saying the exact same thing to their NT moms and dads. Congratulate yourself on being a perfectly normal parent.
But the wild mood swings, sarcasm, unpredictability and sometimes downright meanness of teeangers can be especially hard on aspie moms. You may not be the most confident mom. Sarcasm, irony and biting humor might go right over your head, making you feel dumber than a box of rocks as your teen patiently explains the joke. And if you’ve shared your diagnosis, don’t be surprised if your teen decides at some point to use that against you. Teenagers are masters of dirty fighting. If it wasn’t your AS, it would be some other vulnerability, so again, you’re no different from the other moms.
Just like when you had that squalling little newborn, this is the time to call in reinforcements. At times you may need to turn over a challenging aspect of parenting to your child’s father, a grandparent or another safe supportive adult in your child’s life.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you feel like you’re in over your head. Teenagers can find themselves with adult-sized problems and because of our issues with executive function, we aspies may not always be the best source of guidance when a major crisis occurs. As a parent, you want the best possible outcome for your child, but as an aspie, you may not always be able to work out how to help him get there.
And for everything–big and small–that AS causes you to struggle with as a parent, I guarantee there’s something else that AS will make you amazing at. Your teenager will scoff at your poor fashion sense, but you may be the only one in the family cool-headed enough to teach her to drive without getting into a shouting match at every rolling stop and crooked parking job. And those research skills you’ve developed pursuing your special interests will come handy when it’s time to find the right college (or a good defense attorney).
My daughter’s friends found it amusing that I would spend hours trying to master the Playstation skateboarding tricks that they taught me or that I didn’t care if they wrote all over the wallpaper in her bedroom. More than once I heard the words “your mom is cool” whispered as I left the room.
Still, it wasn’t always easy having kids, and later teenagers, in the house, especially if the visits were unplanned or didn’t have a defined end to them. Even if you’re okay with the noise and mess that teenagers bring into your home, you may find the uncertain nature of their visits hard to handle. I spent a lot of evenings on edge because of the general anxiety caused by having extra people in the house, but I learned to put up with as much as I could, because I knew it was important for Jess to be able to invite friends over and have a relatively normal social life.
If your teen is sympathetic, it may help to sit down with him and discuss why certain ground rules are important to you. For example, if you need a quiet, safe place to escape to, it may be important for you to not have anyone upstairs where you can hear them when you retreat to the sanctuary of your bedroom. Perhaps you need the kids to clean up their messes or not cook foods with strong smells. Visits may be more tolerable if your teen limits her guests to just a couple and respects your need for the visit to end by a specified time.
As the parent, you still have a lot of control over what happens in your own house, even as your children approach adulthood. While asking your teen to make accommodations for your AS might mean that the rules at your house are stricter or stranger than those at her friends’ houses, those rules might be the difference between you being able to enjoy having your teen’s friends in the house or dreading it.
Next in the series: Am I contagious?
This is the fourth in a series of posts about being a mom with Asperger’s.
If your middle school years were anything like mine, you may find yourself dreading them on behalf of your child. Middle school is an awkward time, at best. For many adult aspies, it was the time when our differences started to become very obvious to ourselves and worse, to our peers.
If your child isn’t an aspie (or even if she is), she might have a much easier time of middle school than you did. Try to be neutral about what she can expect as she prepares to make that transition and don’t be surprised if your neurotypical kid is more successful than you were.
Even if your son or daughter suffers only the usual trials of puberty and adolescence, you should be prepared for how the milestones during these years might affect you. It’s possible that your child’s first day of middle school might go great for him but end up triggering an anxiety-induced meltdown for you. Your daughter’s first school dance, big game or sleepover party may bring up memories of your own early adolescence that you’d rather forget.
When I felt this happening, I tried to remember that my daughter was a very different child than I had been. She had her own adolescent anxieties and the last thing she needed was for me to impose my own issues on her. When a crisis arose, I did my best to listen and try to understand what she was facing. This is a big challenge for aspie moms. First of all, we tend to assume that everyone thinks like we do. Empathy is one of the hardest NT qualities to “fake.” We also have a tendency to want to fix stuff when often what our kids needs in a crisis is compassion, understanding and reassurance. And love.
If you find that empathizing is a challenge, practice listening quietly. Then ask “how can I help?” or “is there something I can do that would make you feel better?”
If you have the benefit of a diagnosis, consider sharing that with your adolescent child. Disclosure is a complicated subject and each family handles it differently.
Most experts agree that a middle school age child is old enough to understand the basics of what AS is and how it makes you different from the average mom. Middle schoolers are also old enough to be asked to make simple accommodations, like telling you as concretely as possible what they need or want from you if you’re having trouble figuring it out. Of course this isn’t ideal–at times your child may protest that you’re the mom and you just know this stuff.
There are nuances to social interaction that are lost on aspies and one of them is the idea that knowing what someone is feeling suggests a higher level of caring than having to be told. This is a good opportunity to remind your child that you do care about him and that’s why you’re asking for some extra help in understanding what he needs or wants from you. Also, try to remember that all parents struggle when it comes to figuring out their adolescent children.
The middle school years also bring intense peer pressure. Being raised by an aspie mom seemed to inoculate my daughter against peer pressure to some degree. I’ve always been obliviously, even proudly, different from my peers. Peer pressure doesn’t have a lot of effect when you’re used to being on the outside looking in at your peer group. While this wasn’t something we ever talked about, I think my attitude rubbed off on Jess in positive ways. She’s always been very individualistic and even today she takes the view that if people don’t like her for who she is then it’s their loss.
Next in the series: Lurching Toward Adulthood
Right before starting my freshman year in high school, I spent a week visiting my college-age cousin in Brooklyn. It all felt very grown-up, with her living in the studio apartment she shared with a roommate and me on my first extended trip away from home.
She was my favorite cousin–someone I thought was smart and cool and funny–and I assumed she’d have all sorts of exciting things planned for us. Once I got settled in, she asked me, “What do you want to do?”
“I don’t know.” I had no idea. The city seemed impossibly big and, being from the suburbs of Connecticut, I couldn’t imagine what city people did.
She looked disappointed at my answer and that made me a little annoyed. She lived here. Shouldn’t she have a plan? What kind of person invites someone for a week-long visit with no plan?
“What kind of things are there to do?”
She looked at me like what kind of person doesn’t know what there is to do in New York?
We went for a walk around her neighborhood, then we went to paint a room in the brownstone owned by her boyfriend’s medical school professor. The professor was on vacation so we got to cook out in his miniature garden after we’d finished painting.
Throughout the day, the what do you want to do conversation came up a few more times, and each time I could tell she was growing more frustrated, while I grew more panicked.
I truly had no idea what I wanted to do. She couldn’t believe this was possible.
I couldn’t even come up with the simplest suggestion like ‘I want a cheeseburger’ or ‘I want to see the Empire State Building.’ Every time she asked what I wanted to do, my mind went completely blank and then flooded with panicked variations of what’s wrong with me?
Because she–and now her boyfriend and roommate–obviously expected me to know what I wanted to do.
Finally, as we were finishing up dinner at the professor’s brownstone, my cousin handed me the current edition of The New Yorker. “Here,” she said, “look through the events in the front and find something you want to do this week.”
“Like what?” I asked, still not getting it.
“Anything,” she replied.
I flipped through the pages, reading the listings for movies and art shows. Choosing still seemed impossible, even now that I had a finite list to pick from. Comparing each option with all the others was overwhelming, and what if I picked the wrong thing and they thought I was weird? I’d learned by then that I had weird interests for my age and gender.
I eventually put the magazine down and the three of them looked at me expectantly. “What do you guys want to do?” I asked.
“Do you like comedy?” my cousin’s roommate asked.
“Yes!” Yes, I did. I loved sitcoms and stand-up comics. In fact, before my cousin moved away, we used to spend hours in her room listening to her Steve Martin albums.
“Why didn’t you say so?” the roommate asked.
Because even though I like comedy and it was a favorite way to spend time with my cousin, it just didn’t occur to me. For an aspie, this is a familiar occurrence. It happens when someone asks me what I want to eat or what my favorite color is or where I want to go on vacation. In my head, these questions have an infinite number of possible answers and I don’t know how to begin narrowing the possibilities down.
The same is true if someone hands me a piece of paper and says “draw something.” My immediate reaction is “but what?” I’m an avid writer, but I never sit down at the computer unless I have a firm idea of what I want to write. To open a blank document with no idea of where I plan to start writing is unthinkable. It terrifies me and would be completely unproductive. I’d be better off taking a nap because at least then I wouldn’t be beating myself up over how bad I am at coming up with spontaneously creative ideas.
“Just think” is a common phrase of encouragement when someone draws a blank. But for aspies, the harder we try, the more elusive the answer becomes. The biggest problem is that when I “just think” in those situations, I’m devoting 90% of my thoughts and energy to the fact that I can’t think of an answer and how stupid that must be making me look.
I there’s a relatively straightforward explanation for why aspies have difficulty with things like deciding what to order off a menu at a new restaurant. The thought process involved in these types of decisions requires us to apply emotional discrimination to arrive at a choice.
For example, in choosing what I want from a menu, I’ll first eliminate the things I don’t like. Then I have to decide what I’m in the mood for. Pasta or soup? A burger or a salad? This usually involves considering what I’ve had for other meals that day or even in recent days, because I like to balance my meals.
It also takes into consideration what the other people at the table are having. I don’t like to order the same thing as anyone else. If possible I’d like my entree to be complementary to my husband’s so we can share. If he gets steak, I’ll get a vegetarian dish or seafood. Finally, I’ll factor in what the restaurant specializes in, giving those dishes more weight based on the reasoning that a steakhouse isn’t going to have good fish (which is probably faulty logic in many cases).
This process of elimination usually leaves me with a few choices, any of which I’d be perfectly happy eating. I could ask the waitress to bring any one of my “finalists” and whichever showed up, I’d be content with it. But restaurants don’t work like that, so I often end up choosing at random. The waitress is standing by the table and everyone else has ordered and I’ll simply pick the choice I was thinking about last or the one my eyes happen to fall on when I look back at the menu.
At restaurants that I’ve visited more than a few times, I don’t have this problem. I order the same thing every time. Olive Garden? Spaghetti and meatballs. Cleopatra’s? The al meriam plate. Rooftop Pizza? The number 6 pizza with artichoke hearts, goat cheese and sundried tomatoes.
A lot of aspies have food sensitivities, which lead to eating a limited range of foods. But for others–those of us with few or no issues about with what type of foods we can eat– the tendency to eat the same thing over and over may have something to do with how hard it is to choose, how much work we have to put into identifying what we like and want at any given moment.
As an adult I’ve learned some strategies that make me look less clueless. If I’m visiting someone’s house and they ask me what I want to drink, I’ve learned to ask, “What do you have?” This has the dual benefit of narrowing down my choices and giving me a few extra seconds to process the choice I’m going to have to make. Same thing with “what do you want to do?” The easiest reply is “what are you in the mood for?” or “what’s fun to do on a Saturday night around here?” NTs have lots of preferences, often strong ones, and are generally happy to lead.
I’m not suggesting that aspies need to be wishy-washy followers, but when you have trouble making choices, a little help from NT friends or relatives helps shorten the list of possibilities and take away those long terrifying moments of your brain chanting I don’t know over and over again.
And a post-postscript: When I searched for “Everybody Rides the Carousel” I found this clip and was reminded about why I was so fascinated by the film. It has a certain nonlinear, demented quality to it that I still find hard to unravel.