It is ten months since I wrote my son’s eighteenth birthday blog. In it I described, in quite a lot of detail, his journey from diagnosis as a very young child to being on the cusp of adulthood as a young man. It was as much about me as it was him and explained how it felt to bring up a boy with autism and watch him develop and grow as we bumped and dodged the hurdles and the barriers he faced together. I talked of my pride in his achievements and the pleasure we have shared in his progress, along with some of the many difficulties he has faced and how his challenges have challenged us.
I wrote too of my desire to see him with friends his own age and how in spite of the enormous progress he has made, he still appeared largely socially isolated. I was wrong.
Suddenly with the advent of his 18th, everything changed. A group of friends threw him a surprise party. He was invited to other youngsters’ celebrations. Most weekends there seemed to be a party. And then came the nightclubs. In all the imaginary futures I had conjured up for Joseph when he was little, dropping him & a group of mates off at the local Wetherspoons did not feature! Nor did sitting outside the nightclub at 3:00am to pick them up again. I know most parents allow their children to find their own way home in the early hours of the morning but ever sensible to Joseph’s vulnerabilities we have been anxious to ensure his safe return from his nights on the town. The first time Joseph went, we were both literally on the edge of the sofa all evening desperate for it to go well, for him not to be a liability to his friends and most importantly for him to be happy, have fun and want (and be invited) to repeat the experience.
Now these nights out are so commonplace that we are almost comfortable enough to let Joseph take a taxi home – although we are still wide awake until he comes in.
There have been incidents: his friends thought it was hilarious when he was thrown out of a local pub for being drunk when he was actually sober but the bouncer mistook his autism for intoxication. Their support of him when this happened and the way they helped him to see it as funny rather than offensive has been enormously helpful in his own gradual journey to acceptance of who he is. From the time he realised he was different, he hated it; refused to acknowledge it; and had really quite low self esteem. He tried very very hard to fit in by denying his diagnosis but his friends embrace and love Joseph for who he is and as a result, he is learning to do the same. Understanding and taking part in good natured banter has been hugely helpful to his development.
Then there was the time he did get drunk at a party. Very drunk. I had also never envisaged putting my son to bed in the recovery position with a sick bowl and checking he was still breathing half the night, but he survived and like so many others before him, he did his teenage binge drinking in the company of friends who looked after him – until I took over. In many ways it was the most normal thing in the world.
And so to festivals. They are all going to Reading in a couple of weeks. Joseph has his ticket and his tent. They are going together on the train and the boys have promised me faithfully that they will look after my son. They have also teased me about moving all their tents in the middle of the night as a joke (at least I think it’s a joke) but I think they know and are mindful that there are some parenting type responsibilities that come with the territory. And they don’t care. As always we will rehearse all the possible disaster scenarios with Joseph before he goes and just hope that none happen.
We of course are terrified. But being young and taking risks go hand in hand. He is so lucky to have a group of friends who include him, not because they are being worthy or patronising him but because they genuinely like him and enjoy his company. And how much better to be worrying about your child at a festival with his friends than desperately trying to find ways of occupying a socially isolated and unhappy young man.
So ten months on and, I think for the first time since Joseph was diagnosed, I can conjure up a future for him where we are in the background as parents, not front and centre as parent/carer/surrogate friend. Clearly in that birthday blog I was mistaken. There are friends, there is a festival, there is certainly much (completely normal) FOMO and there are some pretty wonderful young people out there.
Fingers crossed and good luck to all students waiting on A level results next week but particularly to my remarkable son and his fantastic friends.