My Autistic Son Is a Junior and Finally Thriving In High School

My son, a high school junior, recently found out that he is eligible to apply for National Honor Society. Over the past few days, he has been filling out his application and gathering his paperwork in hopes of being accepted. If he gets into NHS, I will be one proud father. But if not, I will be just as proud of him, because of everything he has overcome to get to this point.

My son was diagnosed as autistic in fifth grade

Sam was officially diagnosed as autistic in fifth grade – high functioning, or what was previously referred to as Asperger’s. It took longer than it should have. Every teacher since first grade had suggested that he had autism.

Sam was very bright and funny, but he would have meltdowns at school that were difficult to control. They knew, and we knew. You don’t endure six-hour tantrums without an inkling that something isn’t right.

Having a special needs child makes friendships challenging

Our son, a high school Junior with autism is finally thriving. (Via Gary Sprague)

It wasn’t only school that was a problem. My wife and I lost a lot of friends along the way because we were unable to socialize as we used to. Having a child can be a full-time job, but having a special needs child is like working overtime.

Bringing Sam somewhere was like carrying a bomb that could go off at any time. Most people don’t understand how difficult and time-consuming it can be. I’m actually quite thankful for this though. It teaches you who your real friends are. The way I see it, we just weeded out the fake ones. 

Those elementary and middle school years were difficult and exhausting. Along the way we endured several misdiagnoses, inept psychiatric professionals, and a school IEP coordinator who was just plain evil. There was a lot of hit and miss (mostly miss), but we were determined to see Sam reach his full potential. It was never easy. 

For many years, I never envisioned what Sam’s future might hold beyond high school. I thought of him as The Little Engine That Could, and the top of the hill that he was struggling to reach was high school graduation. We were battling to help him get up that hill, and there was no time or energy to waste worrying about what might lie on the other side.

Things started to turn around for our son in eighth grade

Everything started to turn around for Sam in eighth grade. I believe there were several reasons for this. He was able to control his thoughts and emotions a little better, and that allowed him to improve academically and socially. Most important was that, after years of seeing therapists who at best were of no help and at worst did more harm than good, we finally found one that really got Sam. It is difficult to describe how much he has helped our family, and Sam continues to see him to this day.

Sam continued to improve. By the end of his freshman year, he was number two in his class. He also joined his first team sport, track, that year. This was a huge accomplishment. Most importantly, he started making friends, something he had struggled with his whole life. 

Raising a special needs child requires support from teachers and administrators

As parents, my wife and I found the teachers and administration at my son’s high school to be extremely helpful and understanding of Sam’s needs. After some of the things we had dealt with over the years, it was unexpected and extremely welcome. It makes raising a special needs child so much easier when everyone is on the same page and wants only the best for the child.

The start of sophomore year was a little bumpy. Sam had taken three AP classes, which can be stressful for any student. But as a teenager with autism, for whom anxiety can become crippling, it brought him close to the breaking point. He was smart enough to realize this and dropped the AP classes.

The rest of the year went great. His class ranking dropped a little, but mental health is a lot more important than grades. That was a valuable lesson for him to learn.

My son is now participating in a lot of great activities

Besides taking part in track again, our son became the manager of the football team, a job he loves and has continued during his junior year. He made the All-Academic team in both track and football last year. He was recently asked to be on a committee of students overseeing the school guidance department.

He also joined a jiu-jitsu class outside of school and attends two or three times a week. This is something we never thought he would be able to do, and it fills him with confidence and gives him something to look forward to every week. He is the only teenager in a class full of adults, which is perfect because he has always gotten along better with adults than kids his own age.

Sam still has struggles. He always will. But right now, the accomplishments outnumber the setbacks. He has taken college classes during the summer after his freshman and sophomore years and will take one or two more after his junior year. He is planning to go to college to be a psychologist.

While he realizes that it may not happen, the college at the top of his list is Dartmouth. He even has a Dartmouth sweatshirt that he wears regularly. 

It hasn’t been easy, but the best things rarely are. He’s still chugging along up that hill, and we can finally see a bright future on the other side.

More Great Reading:

How to Help a College-Bound Teen Who has a Disability or Illness

About Gary Sprague

Gary Sprague is a freelance writer who lives in Maine with his wife and two sons. You can find him online at Twitter, Facebook and his blog, GarySpragueBooks.

Read more posts by Gary

Don't miss out!
Want more like this? Get updates about parenting teens and young adults straight to your inbox.