As my son grows older, that omnipresent symbol of autism, the puzzle piece, seems ever more appropriate. The word “puzzle” becomes both noun and adjective, suggesting not only the questions, but also the sense of uncertainty, and even outright frustration, for those of us who love someone on the autism spectrum.
New questions seem to emerge just when we think we have a handle on what is happening. A parent is in despair because her child suddenly seems to regress, or a difficult behavioral problem emerges. Or a child enters a new phase of development, and an unexpected puzzle piece seems to overshadow the progress that’s been made.
My son is entering adolescence, and we find ourselves grappling with new issues. The good news is that he is dealing with typical teenage feelings, an attraction to girls, and a desire to make new friends. The bad news is that he often lacks the social filter to deal with these feelings appropriately.
And so, a new puzzle piece recently came our way.
A few weeks ago, my son got a detention at his school. Apparently, he had wanted to interact with another student, but ended up expressing himself very inappropriately. The school personnel dealt with the issue swiftly and capably, and sent me an email explaining what had happened.
That email confirmed that we indeed were looking at a new piece of the puzzle. The tone of the email was meant to be reassuring, but when I read it, I felt hopeless and defeated.
I stayed in that black hole for a while, but it gradually dawned on me that I have been in this despairing place before…and lived to tell the tale. In fact, I land there each time I encounter a new piece of the puzzle.
With a little hindsight, I am able to remember that these bleak feelings don’t last forever. I know that, even when it feels like everything is going to break apart, things do get better. And, as a result of a particular struggle, I have usually gained something that helps me, and my son, in the long run. It becomes part of the journey from surviving to thriving.
Facing the unknown can feel unbearably lonely. What I’ve learned is that I am able cope, especially if I can turn to people who understand and will hear me out.
In the support groups that I facilitate, parents are continually challenged by the emergence of new puzzle pieces. And yet, in the presence of others who can really empathize and provide some validation, something seems to shift. These parents may not have the answers, but they move to a place of openness, of a more productive coexistence with the questions.
And so the puzzle pieces keep coming. We are still searching for ways to help our son as he continues to grow. But I have faith that, in the struggle to put the puzzle together, we will find connections that will enrich us in our journey.