Dave and I had been married for only about two weeks when we found out we were going to have a baby. Well, we weren’t really going to have a baby; Dave’s oldest was going to move in with us. We may as well have been pregnant – we had only a few short months to plan, and during that time, we experienced everything from indulging in comfort foods to going to bed extra early to having long talks about how life would change dramatically for us once Liam arrived. At the same, we were excited about all of the ways that having Liam with us would enrich our lives. When we told Nacho, Emma and Marco that they were going to “have a big brother”, they were naturally delighted. For several years, every extended holiday had been spent with their step-siblings, and it was always like summer camp, regardless of the time of year. We were lucky that the kids all got along so well. With the six of them packed together in a smallish house for a week or two at a time, vacations were always crazy, but fun. Nesting instincts kicked in for both of us a couple of weeks before Liam arrived: we spent hours working on his room. The wallpaper wasn’t yellow and white and there weren’t baby books and stuffed animals all over his room, but there may have well been, for all the energy we put into it! No, the room had lots of books on medieval history, and instead of yellow and white, the color scheme ranged from tans to browns and blacks – perfect for a teenage boy.
Going from parenting children under the age of 9 to suddenly having a 16 year old was, in itself, a challenge. Not that I didn’t have any experience with teenagers; I am a high school guidance counselor. But it’s one thing to interact with them at work everyday and it’s another to have one living in your home. Sixteen is a strange age, too, because they are caught in a messy, murky place where one minute they are almost adults and you find yourself having lively conversations with them about history, politics or religion, and the next minute they are upstairs playing medieval warrior with the younger ones. And they don’t really do either all that well. The conversations are often idealistic and lack depth, and one of us gets bored quickly. And more often than not, while playing war with the younger siblings, the elder sibling will eventually get in trouble for having taken the game too far… the little guys have developed a pretty incredible vocabulary thanks to their big brother, complete with words like dictator, tyrannical, minions, subjects, a few lesser swear words like hell and damn, oh, and that most important phrase: “all hail King Liam!” And of course there are the other more typical things that teenage boys have to deal with – acne, temptation (girls, parties, substances) and school to name just a few.
For Liam, getting to the teens has been more painful than for most. His decision to move in with us came after many years of being treated as an outsider. Liam has always been a little different from his peers; he is generally more sensitive, more caring, and more emotional than most. At the same time, he is awkward, sometimes to the point of discomfort (for those around him). To top it all off, he has always had some learning difficulties which have made being in a traditional school environment very difficult for him, so he went through a string of alternative schools. And everywhere he went, he was bullied. Liam took a lot of abuse for a lot of years until he finally grew tall enough and strong enough to stand up for himself. But the effects of the bullying were far reaching. For years, Liam used to round his shoulders over toward his chest, almost hunching over, as though to protect himself. His body language reflected a total lack of self-confidence. Even though he learned to defend himself against the kids who picked on him, Liam has also always been very hard on himself. Though he could justify defending himself, he would also always find a way to kick himself for what he had done. Liam has a very well-developed sense of right and wrong, too, and this could wreak havoc on his own freedom to grow and make mistakes.
His family struggled for a long time trying find the right diagnosis for Liam. He went from one psychologist to another, but the results were never conclusive, and never the same. When he arrived in Madrid last January, he had just been put on the autism spectrum. On the one hand, it was helpful for us to be able to do some research about autism so that we could both understand some of Liam’s behaviors and also work with him. On the other hand it made it difficult for us to figure out whether we were dealing with characteristic traits of autism or just plain teenage awkwardness. After a while, we stopped trying to “figure it out” all of the time, because what we found was that Liam was changing. In the last 10 months, Liam has gone through a kind of metamorphosis. He goes to a great school for kids with a range of different abilities; it is a college-prep program and he is gets mostly As and Bs. He has discovered hiking, and takes to the hills and trails behind our house every chance he gets – in it, he finds peace. He has overcome his disdain for psychologists and is working with one now who not only understands him, but who inspires him to work hard (translation: she is very pretty). Liam has made friends – true, fun, interesting, teenage kids who have introduced him to Madrid at night (help!). He is mastering public transportation, and he is learning enough Spanish to get around on his own. There is even a girl, and he is slowly learning that cell phones don’t recharge themselves, that text messages cost money and allowance only goes so far. Liam has even become a little cocky and he‘s experimenting with back talk… and though I wouldn’t admit it to him, it’s almost endearing.
Whatever spectrum Liam was put on – autistic or otherwise, this is what we know: He is awkward. He has strong ideals and argues for them with conviction. He goes from overjoyed to sullen in a matter of minutes. He is content to hole up in his room all day and have minimal contact with his family, only make an rare appearance, say something annoying and then disappear again. He is smart enough to know better yet still gets himself into trouble sometimes. He does most everything with a delightfully goofy sense of humor. Liam’s condition? Yeah – TEEN. Oh, and those hunched shoulders of before? Gone. Today, he walks tall and proud (and we are so proud of him!).