Valentine’s Day Big Unknown for Tween With Autism

With my son now in middle school, we’re entering a brave new (and scary) world when it comes to Valentine’s Day. Up until now, there was a class party and all the students were told that if they were bringing in valentines – which everyone did plus a lot ofvalentines day to an autistic tween candy – then they had to include one for all of their classmates so no one was left out. Middle school is a completely different animal. There are no “rules” about who to bring valentines and candy – I think it’s mostly about the candy – for. And as a mother of a son on the autism spectrum, I am dreading the exchanges. Why? Because with the exception of about maybe two or three other students, I think my son will be forgotten.

No, no, you say. Kids wouldn’t do that. But no, they do – especially when they are 12-years-old. They may not do it because they are mean; it’s just an omission since he’s not really on their radar screens because he’s quiet or keeps to himself since he has a lot of anxiety in social settings. He just blends into the background and few others notice him.

Here’s an example: Last week at school, there was a social and the main activity of the event was a two-person dodgeball tournament. Now Michael may not be the most athletic kid in the world, but he loves dodgeball. The vice-principal announced the tournament at lunch and told kids they had until 3:30 p.m. the next day to find a partner and sign up. Michael first asked his closest friend at school (besides his sister), but he said he wasn’t going to the social because of a family activity. He quickly got up and asked a girl and about four boys he went to elementary school with to be partners with him. They all said they had partners already. Since I work in the school lunchroom, I witnessed this firsthand. My heart was breaking for him, as he kept asking the few kids he knew. After school, I told him he could still attend the event – there were other activities, including snacks, and who knows? Maybe someone wouldn’t show up and he could partner with him. Michael declined, saying he just didn’t want to go and it wouldn’t be any fun at all if he couldn’t play dodgeball. When I went to pick up his sister, who is one year younger, one of Michael’s resource teachers asked me where he was. I was honest and said he didn’t feel like coming since he didn’t have a partner. She frowned.

Now Valentine’s Day is coming up fast. Michael has already asked me what they do at the middle school. I asked a few other mom friends with older kids, who said that some kids bring valentines for every kid in their homeroom plus their other good buddies while others just bring something for their buddies. Some don’t do anything. I relayed that information back to Michael and asked what he wanted to do. He said for sure he would give a valentine to his one buddy and another good friend, who happens to be a girl, but that he might try to sneak it to her so no one thinks they are “in love” or anything. Beyond that, he’s unsure. I’m unsure of what to expect when I pick him up on the day of the class party – yes they are still doing a little homeroom party with cupcakes or cookies. Will he just have a couple of treats? Will he care that his sister got a lot more? (In fifth grade, everyone is still required to bring valentines for everyone else.) Will he come home upset and full of negative thoughts about himself? (this is something we’re working on.) I’m doing my best to hide my angst from him so he doesn’t feed off of it. I don’t want him to expect the worst, but I also don’t want him to think he’ll come home with a bag full of candy and be disappointed if it doesn’t happen. Given his disability, expressing and controlling his feelings are a huge challenge for Michael and he usually dissolves into a meltdown.

As he gets older, I know this will likely be the first of many Valentine’s Days when his expectations won’t match the outcome. But he’s not alone – many tweens and teens without special needs are in the same position. It’s just hard for us as parents to watch.

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MaryBeth Matzek

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