Staring down the barrel of the teenage years

My 11 year old son told me the other day, very matter of factly, that he was not going to college. I asked him what his plans were and he said he was going to follow his passion, which was rock collecting. I told him that most people do that kind of thing as a hobby, and it might be hard to make a living doing that. He asked me if I would force him to go to college. I explained that at that point in his life, I would not be able to force him to do anything, but if he was not going to college, he would need to find a way to support himself. He then asked me if people who work at walmart make a lot of money.
"No, no they don't" was my reply. Then he asked me about McDonald's. "No" , I replied again, "you won't make enough to live on if you work there.
 
He then asked me about a family friend's son, if he went to college. This friend, is developmentally disabled, and lives in a group home. "No, he did not go to college", I said. "Why?" my son asked. I took pause, as I have been doing a lot as of late, due to the prickly nature of my son's questioning. I explained that it takes him a little longer to learn things and that college would have been really difficult for him to understand and he would not have been able to keep up. I said though, he had a job and he had people helping him so that he could live with his friends in a group home. 
My son has suddenly become aware that he is not the same as the other kids. I kind of feared the day that this would come as I was not sure how I would even explain his diagnosis to him, when honestly, it did not seem to make much sense to me. Pdd-nos is such a vague term. I never really myself understood just what that would mean. It has been kind of amazing to see him mature and develop this self awareness. It makes me sad, yet at the same time, it's like an awakening in him, that ability to think in terms of himself in relation to the world. He point blank came out and said "Do I have special needs?". I stared at him blankly. Again, that pause. Um, Um, Uh....., "Well, Do I?". I took a deep breath. "Yes, you have special needs". " Well , what are they?", he so rightly asked. Again, my brain seemed to stop working. Like when the cable tv just seems to freeze and the people on the screen just stand there in stunned silence.
 
I told him that in school, he sometimes needs a little more time to work on things, and that sometimes he gets frustrated when he does not understand things right  away and gets upset. I said that he needs a little help staying focused on things, that sometimes he does not always pay attention. I should add that my son agreed with me. I realize that is lame and vague. But this is hard on me. These are things I have struggled with since those days we got that punch in the gut diagnosis. I am not always sure myself, just exactly what his special needs are. I know he has a hard time making friends. I know that he likes to talk about rocks incessantly and sometimes other kids don't want to hear it. I know he wishes that his friends would just do what he wants all the time and that he can't read their social cues to know when they are kidding and when they are serious.  I know he likes things the way he likes them and has no interest in the way anyone else likes them.
 
After he kind of took that in, his new question involved all the other special needs people he knew. He rattled off a list of the other kids that have been with him in his inclusion class since kindergarten. "Do they have special needs too?" , he asked. I said that they did and that most people need a little extra help every now and again. He seemed to be relieved to know that he was not the only special needs person in existence.
 
I was advised at one point by an overzealous school psychologist that I had to tell my son he had autism, sooner than later. I did not want to. Not because I am in denial. That ship sailed a long time ago. I am just not sure I can define autism in terms that he can understand. It's a lofty concept for a grownup, let alone an 11 year old hypochondriac who will think it's some kind of incurable disease. I can just imagine his reaction, "will it go away? how did I get it? Can I die from it? Does it hurt". This is a child who has inherited my ability to turn a hangnail into terminal cancer. 
 
I don't think I need to give him a finite definition of who he is or isn't, or what syndrome  he has or has not. I think, for him, it's important that he knows his strengths and he knows the things that he struggles with. 
 
As we embark on the new adventure that is called Middle School, I need to remember that he is far more intuitive and sensitive than I had ever thought. I need to take a giant step back and try and see things in the larger sense. I need to give him way more credit than I have been giving him.
 

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