First Love: On Neurodivergent Childhood, Dignity, and Growing up

Written By: Melanie Henson

I needed my son Colin’s permission to write this article.

And that’s something new, believe it or not. 

You see, until he reached the age of majority, I had been making so many decisions on Colin’s behalf ––  at IEPs, at the doctor’s office, when making playdates with his friends from school. 

Sure, I always told him exactly what was going on, and I asked for his input into his own future…but the bottom line, the final word, so to speak, was, according to the school, the doctors and the state, all on my husband and myself, not on our beautiful, amazing, autistic son.

Without realizing it, I had been stepping in and rowing Colin’s boat, so to speak. I was somehow under the illusion that his taking the helm was a long, long way off. 

Somehow, I was unprepared for this shift from “I can help you” to “What can I do that fits with your plans?” 

But that day came. And it was a true eye-opener.

Here’s the amazing event that taught me to see my son as a young adult, and how my husband and I came to know our wonderful child in a whole new way.

A Proposal…and a Revelation

The date was May 8, 2021. I’ll always remember that, and it’s probably no surprise, considering how much our lives changed that day.

The students of Class 218 were not supposed to have a prom at all. In the wake of COVID, schools were not open yet. Masks were still being worn, and distancing was very definitely a thing.

But the school district had decided that if their neurodivergent population needed anything, it was socialization, and not just via Zoom. So, amazingly, the Best Buddies program was holding their annual prom.

About an hour into the event, my then 17-year-old son was out on the dance floor, having the time of his life. Briefly, I lost sight of Colin. With a familiar rising panic, I stood on tiptoe to try to see into the crowd. Where was he? 

After all, I thought, Colin was only a child. He shouldn’t be left without someone to take care of him. I was falling down on the job.

He Grew Up That Night. I Wasn’t Ready

Suddenly, Kirk*, one of my son’s neurotypical Best Buddies pals, rushed over.

“Come quick, Mrs. Henson,” he said. “Colin is on his knees on the dance floor.”

Feeling very guilty ––  and justified in having been worried ––  I raced to follow Kirk through a maze of dancing teens. 

And there was Colin, on both knees…but totally fine.

“You won’t believe this,” Kirk said. He’d arrived a half-second before me and already had the scoop from another student. “Colin just asked Tania* to marry him.” He added with a huge, wondering grin, “And I think she just said yes.”

…But The Signs Had Been There

I was surprised; no, I was shocked. 

I shouldn’t have been. After all, Colin and Tania’s story began nearly five years earlier.

The two had attended middle school together. I had heard once or twice that Tania was “pretty,” something I took in a similar vein to Colin saying the Little Mermaid and Peach from Super Mario Brothers was pretty.

Then one day Colin surprised me by coming home and saying Tania was his “girlfriend.” I didn’t think much of it at the time except oh, how adorable, these kids are so sweet.

Then I Found Out: Everyone Grows Up. Yes, Everyone

So the evening of Best Buddies Prom 220 was a revelation to me. The adorable couple had been peas in a pod, always together at school, and on “dates” with me as the chaperone. But they’d never been alone together. 

They’d held hands. They kissed occasionally. But their kisses were always on the cheek, firm smmmmacks, like the ones I gave Colin and, I’m sure, Tania’s mother had given her, when both were little.

Helping my son back up from the prom dance floor, it dawned on me that he and Tania weren’t little anymore. Despite their physical growth ––  even Tania stood three inches above me by now ––  I had been thinking of them all along as children. 

But in reality, they grew up.

And then another thought came to mind.

Everyone grows up. To varying degrees, and within their capabilities. But they grow up. And they deserve the dignity of being treated that way.

When you’re attending IEPs and explaining over and over again to strangers things they have no right to know, and are helping your child learn to sign and to self-regulate, you don’t think they’ll ever  be “true” adults. They’re your little ones. And that’s that. 

But that’s where we parents are wrong.

People in wheelchairs or out of them, the bed-bound, those with locked-in syndrome, athletes, movie stars, office workers, all probably have a lot more going on in their hearts than we parents imagine, or perhaps, are ready to acknowledge. And as time goes by, they’re experiencing things…just like the neurotypical or typically-abled population.

Look for the signs. An expression in the eyes. A comment that takes you aback, spoken, signed or via assisted communication device. 

One day, you may just be surprised.

They’re Adults. It’s Time to Treat Them That Way

Colin and Tania aren’t actually getting married. It was a gesture, one that the two haven’t spoken of since, as far as I know. Rather, it was a token of love, the biggest and most genuine one Colin could think of. 

And it was, if I do say so myself, a good one. What better way to profess one’s genuine love?

Colin thought this up on his own; he had shown no sign at all until that point that he’d been thinking about it, but he had. Tania agreed on her own. They made an adult decision together, as an adult (Tania, then 18) and a near-adult, my son.

Today they’re both of the age of majority. They both still love hikes, dancing, SpongeBob, and laughter. They love holding hands. Kisses are still pecks.

And they’re as genuine and whole as any love can be, from anyone, neurodivergent, neurotypical, or any person at all.

I remember my first love. I loved no more than these two, and no less.

Oh, and for what it’s worth, he answered “sure” to the following. If he had not, I’d have honored his decision. I’m honored that Colin agreed to share his beautiful story.

Here’s to that next stage for our children, whenever and however it may come.