Ten Things I Want My Autistic High School Senior to Know

2020-08-27T12:23:44-07:00August 27th, 2020|Non-Fiction|

10th anniversary! Originally published September 2010

Last week my husband and I attended our last-ever back-to-school parent meeting. Bryce, our youngest child, is a senior. We’re a light year away from the first year following his identification as a child with autism, when he attended a supported integrated preschool class. At the end of each week, he greeted the teacher with, “One more day, baby,” a line from a movie. To this day I get an occasional message from that teacher recalling that line. On the first morning of his first senior year, Bryce turned to me and said, “One more year, baby.”


Seven years after we left that preschool, I wrote a little thing called Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew. It grew into the kind of book every author would be honored and humbled to have been able to write. Those ten things spoke for the younger child my son was at the time. Another seven years later, he speaks for himself, so my role is now to speak to him, not for him. Thus, a new set of ten things.

You’ll notice right away that these ten things aren’t autism-specific. That’s because the older Bryce grew, the more his autism became only a part of him, a thinking and learning style, not a gargoyle crouched over him dictating his existence, not a defining or even controlling characteristic. He would be the first to tell you that he autism has and always will impose challenges on his life. But he is also a marvel of grace and fortitude. He will live these ten things, and a few hundred more, long after his senior year is over.

Be the kind of senior you appreciated as a freshman, the welcoming, mentoring upperclassman who helped you get off to such a good start. All young people need role models. You had them, now it’s your turn to be one.

Never compromise your integrity. A lifetime of building a reputation for honesty, trustworthiness and kindness can be nuked in an instant. One lie, betrayal, thoughtless remark. One “just this once” cheating or petty pilfering. That’s all it takes to damage or ruin relationships with family, friends, bosses, coworkers. Trust destroyed takes years to rebuild because you can’t prove a negative like “I’ll never do it again” by anything other than the passage of time.

Don’t wish away the moment for the future. You’re excited at the thought of exploring college and work and the world beyond high school. But many wonderful opportunities and experiences are ahead of you as part of your senior year. Embrace and savor them! It’s great to have milestones to look forward to, but many small, daily joys of life may pass you by if you are always marking time, waiting for some future event.

Manners count. As our society has grown unmannerly to a ghastly degree, manners may be the very thing that places you a cut above others when vying for a job, a favor, a friendship. Remember your favorite scene in “Ghostbusters” when Bill Murray won’t show William Atherton the storage facility “because you did not use the magic word.” Atherton had to be told that the magic word is “please.” Please! Manners are never inappropriate or out of style. You know that many a budding romance has been killed by lax table manners; you wrote about it when you were twelve! Curb your use of casual profanity before it becomes so ingrained that it slips out at exactly the wrong moment (“Nice to meet you, Mr. Smith. Your daughter is f**king awesome!”). Because …

There’s someone out there for you, if that’s what you want. It’s been hard to watch while “mean girls” baffle and betray you. But you’ve cast your eye and struck friendships with some very lovely young women. Trust your character judgment; it’s sound, even though you won’t always be right.

Know when to ask for help. Your drive to become an independent adult is strong. But there’s a critical difference between being strong and being headstrong. Asking for help and learning from those who help you is a mark of strength and maturity, not weakness or inability. The very knowledge and opportunities that will contribute to the independence you so desire will pass you by if you don’t ask, ask, ask.

Have a dream, but also be realistic—and employable. You want to be a screenwriter. I had the writing jones myself, so I get it. No one should ever be without dreams and goals, but you will need marketable job skills in order to support yourself while you pursue the dream. Even your own mom had a “day job”—for 25 years!—before becoming a full-time writer.

Keep perspective. Your autism has placed challenges upon you, and will continue to. That’s why it’s important to remain ever aware of the vast range of human conditions around you. I cannot say it better that the words of The Desiderata: “If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.”

Vote. It’s both a privilege and an obligation. I could write “ten things” on this alone. The issues are complicated and candidates will be manipulative. Don’t use the complexity as a reason not to participate in the process, to do the tough work of learning to distinguish between opinion and fact, to make reasoned decisions about people and issues that affect your community. You’ve grown up listening to me hiss at people, “If you don’t vote, you give up the right to complain.”

Finish strong! Remember all your years of running track, where races were decided by who was able to power across the finish line. If you feel a creeping urge to coast towards the end of this year (“senioritis”)—don’t. Get in the habit of finishing strong. Few traits impress employers more than knowing an employee can be relied upon to carry projects through to completion on time and with his full best efforts.

In the fall of 1998, I walked into your kindergarten classroom for the first time. A banner over the door proclaimed, “Welcome, Class of 2011!” It startled me. It seemed, so very far off in time. But here we are.

And here we go…


© 2010 Ellen Notbohm www.ellennotbohm.com

Keywords: autism, autistic, ten things, high school, senior year, vote, manners, role model, integrity, employment, perspective

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