My son is a fencer. He has classes 2-3 times a week, and they’re loud, what with sabers clanging and machines beeping and coaches trying to be heard over it all. After class, he is usually silent for the 30-minute drive home.
A couple of years ago, I would have encouraged him to tell me about his class and asked him questions to try to engage him (because as a parent, you’re “supposed to” engage with your child about his activities). I would have reminded him to say goodbye to his coach and classmates and hello to me. And he would have snapped at me at some point, which I would scold… and we’d both come away frustrated. I would have thought that I was just trying to teach him how to get along in the world. That was my job.
And I was right… sort of. It certainly is my job to teach Nick how to get along in the world. But now I know that need to teach him to do it HIS way, not mine. I am helping him to forge his own path, not to limit himself to an existing one.
So now when I pick him up from fencing, we leave in silence and ride home in silence. I have given his coaches and classmates the context to understand and accept Nick the way he is, and they do. And guess what? Because he feels accepted and supported at his fencing club, he engages happily and frequently there. And because he knows I won’t force him to engage afterward, he doesn’t have an anxiety spike. It’s his choice to do this sport, and with the right supports he is thriving in it.
By the time we get home from fencing, Nick is usually ready to talk again, having spent the ride processing and recharging. He is more likely these days to tell me about a new move that he learned or something his coach said, though it may be hours later or even the next day before he finds the language to tell me. But I am adaptable and patient. I can wait.
Acceptance means that I am truly OK with that silent ride. I’m not sitting there stewing about how sad it is that I can’t engage with my son and ask him how his class was. I’m not strategizing about ways I can try to get him to engage with me. Instead I am at peace knowing that he will engage when he is ready, and that he will talk to me because he wants to.
Recently as I was dropping off my son at his fencing class, he hesitated as he got out of the car and said, in a voice so earnest it brough tears to my eyes, “Thanks for always taking me to fencing, Mom.” I may not get regular engagement, but I get genuine gratitude spoken from the heart. And I happily accept that.
Nick’s anxiety has been much lower overall since I learned to truly accept him. And because his anxiety is lower, many of his skills have improved dramatically. He is more likely to make eye contact when he is not forced to. He willingly shops with me when he knows we will do it “the autistic way” and not “the NT way.” He’s a straight A student learning to advocate for himself. (How we learned to make his school day autism-friendly.) Contrary to popular expectation, the less I demand from him, the more he is able to do.
He actually quit fencing for almost two years because he was working so hard just to survive junior high (before he had acceptance) that he had no energy left to cope with the demands of the sport. I It was during those two years that I progressed from merely conceding his autism to fully accepting it, and then put the right supports into place in his life. Now he’s back at it and super motivated.
No, life isn’t all sunshine and roses and we still have our struggles—we are a parent and a teenager, after all, with brains that are wired very differently. But with the right support, he is forging his own path toward a life that suits him just the way he is.