My middle son is 19 now. He is autistic. I wrote about him before, and about the lessons I’ve learned being his dad.
He likes to draw. Above is a self-portrait he drew, looking pretty BA. He’s actually a pretty nice guy, even though the drawing makes him look like he’s about to shake you down for that coupon you were going to use for a free ice-cream cone.
Over the past six months, his mother and I have been trying to help him navigate the online relationships he’d developed on a website that allows you to upload and share art and photography. He’s a huge Ratchet and Clank video game fan, and quickly found a group of users that were creating their own R&C fan art. The idea had him all excited at first, but then he noticed group members posting pictures of the video game’s characters in unsavory scenarios. This made our black and white thinking spectrum son very upset.
When he talked to us about it, we told him simply to not look at those pictures, and block those particular group members so that their drawings wouldn’t show up in his feed anymore. This lead to one of the most difficult parts of parenting an autistic child, and leading him into adulthood. He couldn’t NOT say something. He felt like what they were doing was wrong, and that he had an obligation to point it out. In his mind, It was an injustice that had to be confronted.
As you could imagine, pointing out the immorality of others’ drawings, with the grace of a rusty fishhook, only led to ugly backlash. It’s not like the users of the website had any idea of his developmental limitations. They just saw a self-righteous kid passing judgement on them. They cursed at him, told him to mind his own business, and leave them alone. Then it got worse.
I’ve learned that the idea of “leaving it alone” is one that’s impossible to expect from some autistic kids. He escalated, intensified his attack on the unrighteous use of his beloved characters, and (gasp) was blocked by three of his “friends”. Then it got even worse.
To say that he developed an obsession for winning those friends back is an epic understatement. For four months, he lost sleep, shed tears, made heartfelt appeals, and tried every day to talk mutual friends into talking those angry users into unblocking him. In the process, he even lost some mutual friends because they were tired of hearing about it. Everyone was telling him to let it go but he refused.
I told him many times to learn from the experience and move on. His continual pressing the issue online was only stirring up a beehive. He was becoming a pariah on the website. I tried to get people to rally around him and show him how loved and supported he was. I even went on the website myself and asked the group to cut him some slack. It all came to a head when another member of the R&C group posted a long, detailed status update about all of the ways my son had made her hate him. There were over 50 comments on the post tearing him down, cussing him out, and accusing him of being the worst kind of person possible.
It broke my heart.
In the end, I had to block him from the site. His refusal to follow wise counsel was hurting him terribly. Some autistic kids are actually incapable of learning from experience, and unable to anticipate others’ reactions to their words or actions. Imagine the impact that would have on your ability to make and keep friends! It would be like playing chess but forgetting your past moves and only being able to see your own pieces. I asked him if he ever gets confused. He said, “All the time.”
So, from here we’re looking for an opportunity for him to start over, either online or in person. We’re hoping that, against the odds, he will learn from this. If he’s ever going to transition to an adulthood that resembles a form of grownup independence, he’s going to have to learn the skills of extending grace, accepting rejection, and letting go.
It’s a long march to that place.