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Extra special graduation

By Paul Hosford 

It doesn’t seem possible: our little boy just graduated from high school. Everybody warned us this would happen — you blink and they’re grown. But it was so hard to believe during those first sleepless nights. To paraphrase a famous line from Gone With The Wind, “we didn’t know nothin’ ‘bout babies,” and the learning curve for first-time parents is steep.

We learned that you can live without much sleep, but it isn’t much fun. It did, though, give life a sort of surreal quality. It’s recently been revealed that the CIA used sleep deprivation to get information from prisoners at Gitmo. I’m sure they got some sort of information for their efforts, but I can’t think it had much connection with reality. I have to wonder, though, if it was a new parent who devised this technique. In any event, it is a reminder that having a new baby is in some ways akin to a CIA torture session.

Only worse. Baby boys pee on you. The first time I attempted a diaper change I was literally “baptized” into fatherhood. Maybe being sleep-deprived tempered my response — I just cleaned us up and warmed a bottle.

Being a parent of a child of any age is a guarantee of losing sleep. I have never slept soundly since William was born. I wake at the slightest noise, always ready to deal with whatever problem has gotten a child up in the night.

As they get older, the problems at night change from things requiring direct parental involvement — like throwing up in the crib — to more mundane things like wanting a drink of water. But as they grow and become more self-sufficient, a parent’s nights begin to fill with worries about the future.

I couldn’t sleep at all the night before William started school, worrying about how it would go, thinking about all the implications. I remember Lori cried when we left him at Kindergarten. Another mother, who couldn’t conceal her joy, asked if we’d just left our first child. We nodded. She replied “My last!”

William had a tough time in school. We struggled as he struggled. His teachers soon noticed that William didn’t think and act exactly like the other kids. He didn’t cause trouble; he wasn’t disruptive. But he wasn’t the same. We consulted professionals, filled out huge questionnaires, attended meeting after meeting. Finally, in fifth grade when bullying by certain classmates exacerbated some of William’s behavioral differences, we consulted a developmental pediatrician in Omaha.

She spent more time telling us about her children than examining William, but by the time it was all said and done we were told that William had “autism spectrum disorder not otherwise defined.” Autism either became more common or else more frequently diagnosed starting around the time William was born. But even here, William was unique. He was autistic, but not in a “defined” way.

William’s autism isn’t like Rainman or the more severe cases we see on TV. He’s blessed to be “high functioning.” But it affects everything from his physical coordination to his communication skills. He tends to take everything literally and has problems reading body language and making eye contact.

His mother and I have put in a lot of sleepless nights worrying about him. There were times when his challenges made it seem he’d never make it to graduation. We thought about home-schooling but realized that he had to learn to interact successfully with others.

We have met regularly with his teachers, the school counselor and various administrators from early elementary school through high school. We honestly believe that the willingness of the school to work with us made it possible for him to overcome many of his challenges. He communicates far better than he used to, and his high school teachers often remark about how he “blossomed” from an introverted freshman into a confident senior who would not only talk but joke with them.

And we also need to thank his fellow students who have — with a few notable exceptions — accepted William’s differences and considered him to be one of them.

At commencement, William’s classmates Jennifer Simons and Hilary Wolf both gave great addresses, and both stressed the importance of facing the inevitable changes the future holds with courage and a positive attitude. That’s good advice for people of any age. And especially good advice to the parents of “special needs” children. Even in those darkest nights, never forget wonderful things can and will happen. Our William is living proof.