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Why My Son With Autism Feels Like a Plant With No Roots During the Pandemic

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Before Covid (BC, or the Beforetimes), my son had a lot of trouble at school. Juggling bipolar disorder and autism, plus high intelligence and genetic nerdiness, he just didn’t seem to fit in anywhere, and was constantly teased. After being assaulted by another student, he refused to go back. But that was a year ago in October 2019.

We hoped some time off might give him a breather, and that maybe we could get him back to school somehow after the holidays that year. That time went by miraculously; there were no fights over homework, no arguments over bedtime, no anxiety-fueled insomnia or graphic nightmares. We thought this time might allow our son to shed some of his fear about school, and that maybe he could go back in some form or another.

Planning this return slowly, we knew we had plenty of time. We were shooting for maybe March as a return. That didn’t happen.

In fact, nothing happened. Since I worked at a high school, and had planned to retire in June anyway, I went to work one day in February and never went back. Everything was left in my library as it had been the day I left, like the ash shadows in Pompeii frozen in time. And it was a tiny and invisible disaster, not a volcano, that blew all of our lives apart. For my son, the tenuous thread that kept him connected at school (his friends and some teachers), were also now untethered from his life. But we had each other.

At first, this seemed great. Leisurely coffee drinking, doing some work, answering emails, hanging out with pets and family. My son had lots of time to do what he liked: creating maps and communities in his online games. We were playing board games, having one fun night a week that included ‘80s dance parties, cartoon watching, baking, cooking, night-time badminton with light-up shuttlecocks, fire pit confessionals. We tried virtual school, but that was less than functional. He just couldn’t do it. I thought that since I was officially retired, I’d be able to help him construct some kind of life, whether it was some form of high school, or a training program for kids with autism, or something else.

As the days dragged on, it became clear that there was no national strategy for containing the virus. We all became more and more hopeless, but we tried to keep each other afloat. “We’ll get through it,” my son said to me, and I said the same to him. We were in good shape. We had a house, we had income, we could pay our bills and buy food. We weren’t sick. It would resolve in a few months. We had no illusion that it would miraculously disappear, but it couldn’t go on for more than a few months, right?

Now we have nearly lost an entire year. We have tried a few things… volunteering for a local autism charity making soaps and selling them at Farmer’s Markets (this was stymied by the health restrictions and intense chemicals of the soap-making for my sensory-defensive kiddo.) We tried free online classes through Google, but he didn’t like that. We tried courses on Udemy, a platform that charges a very small fee for self-guided video classes. Didn’t work. We contacted everyone we could think of to help us find something for my son to do that would feel like school or connection… but none of it worked.

Now my son, whose autism manifests often as perseveration (being stuck on an idea), is obsessed with moving to Canada. He’s decided after the election that the U.S. will never be a good place to live because half of the country voted to keep a president who was literally killing thousands of Americans daily from his negligence. We are witnessing an unparalleled assault on America’s norms, traditions and laws, but we can’t go anywhere because of Covid. My son feels increasingly more desperate, knowing that life as we knew it could not go forward, but that there was no life to take its place.

At an age where he should be exploring, making friends, sampling jobs and educational programs, my son is stuck. He has friends online, but that’s not the same. Almost 10 times per day he finds me, tells me he can no longer stand the way things are, and that he can’t be here in our house in California. I have no answer for him.

As a mom, I want to be able to solve this problem. I am a champion problem solver, but this has me stumped. I cannot at this moment see any way out of this except to wait. It feels hopeless. But as I’ve said to my son, all we can control is what we do. We have to accept what is and plan around it. As my Midwestern mom used to say, “Bloom where you are planted.”

My son is a plant with no roots, and he isn’t getting the water, food, air, love or company he needs from the outside world. We are all trying to be all things to each other, my husband, my son and I, but it increasingly feels like not enough. When this is all over, what happens to all the kids who came of age under this darkness? Do we give them another year or two to finish high school? Do we offer them some other option? Or, as is usual in the U.S., do we just leave them to fend for themselves, hoping they figure it out?

All kids, with autism or not, are precious resources. Our country has so far shown stunningly inadequate abilities to address their needs. Teachers do the best they can, but this is not a teacher problem. It’s a human, American problem. And it will affect all of us.

Getty image by EnrouteKSM.

Originally published: February 7, 2021
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