This month, my daughter celebrated her 18th birthday, which left me with a sense of accomplishment that I had managed to raise both of my children to adulthood—more successfully than not, I might add! During the course of the celebration, it was brought to my attention that my son’s future plans do not include children. He has come to this decision due in large part to his family history of autism spectrum disorders. For me, this raises several issues. First, of course, I worry that if he holds fast to this, I don’t get grandchildren. But one of the personal bigger questions becomes, had I known then what I know now … would I have made a similar choice?
Here’s what I know—I have never had one minute of regret over having had my children, even once I knew that I was the perfect argument in favor of a genetic link in autism. What I do regret, however—and have regretted since the day I was diagnosed—was that I had passed along to both of my children so much of what made my growing up (not to mention, being a grown up) so difficult. I wanted them both to grow up feeling comfortable in their own skins. I hoped they would make friends easily and feel at ease when interacting with their peers. I wanted them to have a natural self-confidence I saw in others but could never quite access in my own head. I wanted them to have interests that fell in line with what their classmates and neighborhood kids were interested in, which would make forming those friendships easier. I wanted for them what any parent would want for their children, but that wanting came from a place of longing too—I wanted them to have the tools that would have made their childhoods simple and carefree. Isn’t that what every child deserves? I wanted them to have what I didn’t. I didn’t want them to be natural targets for bullies. I wanted them to know they had every right to stick up for themselves, and the right to expect that others would be in their corner to stick up for them, too. I wanted them to feel comfortable interacting with members of the opposite sex, and not carry that social awkwardness with them well into adulthood where it would become easier to access artificial confidence by way of what we’ll call unhealthy coping strategies.
So not surprisingly, I wanted to jump in and immediately set about talking my son out of this decision. The rational voice in my head reminded me that the timing was bad, and since he’s not at the point where this is a decision he has to make, there will come a point where the timing is better and we can have a conversation … perhaps a series of conversations. I can tell him what I know without question—that I do not regret having him and his sister even though I passed my autism on to them, and along with the autism came all of those hardships in a variety of shapes and sizes to permeate their childhoods as it did my own. But here’s what he gets that I didn’t have, what his sister gets too, what all of these children and adolescents who are transitioning to adulthood with the knowledge of their place on the spectrum get: Knowledge. As I said many columns ago, knowledge is power. I do not think that my children need to fear having a child of their own with an autism spectrum disorder, because they are incredibly smart, and more importantly, incredibly empathetic young adults who will make amazing parents should they someday make that choice. Perhaps my “job,”—now that I have, after all, successfully raised them to adulthood—is to look for those teachable moments to point out to them both that each and every one of those wishes that I had for them would have been so much more attainable had I gone into the whole parenting thing understanding how my brain worked. That’s the advantage they have today that I didn’t have, and that’s just one of the ways I still believe that when it comes to the autism spectrum, knowledge is power.