When Turning 13 Is Not the Typical Rite of Passage

I forgot it was so soon. I forgot how old he’d be. I forgot to mention it to him. I had yet to get him anything.

Some weeks ago, my son, Finn, was turning 13, an age that marks the onset of puberty and the distancing of childhood, a real milestone. Anne Frank was 13 when she received her diary. Joan of Arc was believed to be 13 when she started hearing voices. When a Jewish boy is 13, he becomes accountable for his actions and becomes a bar mitzvah.

But for my son, who was diagnosed with autism and persistent developmental delays at 18 months, and who has lived in a residential school for the last three years, each birthday has been accompanied by complicated feelings, a reminder of the milestones he has not met and may never meet.

At 13, Finn is still soft and subdued, quite unlike the typical boys his age. He cannot speak, so his wanting is expressed nonverbally. If pointing doesn’t work he will stomp his foot. If he wants something badly enough — to leave the house, or to see his sitter — his cheeks will flush. His eyes will widen. He may make a noise of frustration and stomp again. If these gestures are ignored he will “aggress,” biting his own left hand — you should see the thick, dark callus, it’s been there for years — or suddenly grabbing at your shirt or knocking the glasses off your face.

So, then you ask him, do you want to go? And he’ll nod gently, slightly, barely at all. But there’s so much in this nod, so much behind it. He does want. He does dream. He does have his own agenda. Right?

In moments like these I wish I could read his mind, and tap into his truest desires. On your children’s birthdays you want to get them what they want, what their hearts truly desire. What does my son want? Not in this small moment — to eat, play, go, to touch something soft. But in this day, this week, this month. What does he want to keep to himself, to have all his own?

There’s a way, I believe, that when you get something, some new article of clothing, a gadget, or a book, that you are asserting your identity. This is me. I’m the one who wants this. In acquisitions we can make space for our growth as individuals. Through this article of clothing, this gadget, or book, I will be changed. I choose this, and this will change me or reflect changes I’ve already made. I see this in my neurotypical daughter, Finn’s 15-year-old sister.

She wants to be different from her peers, in the music she listens to, the movies she watches, in the clothes she wears. She wants to be punk rock. At the beginning of the year, she told us she wanted to wear black lipstick and fishnet stockings. And now she has done both. She doesn’t want to wear the clothes her mother wants her to wear, something neat and flattering. She wants to assert her individuality and her independence through her choices. She likes to push the boundaries of what’s acceptable. I can see why this is important. I’m familiar with how a typical teenager grows and matures.

But not with Finn. He is growing, of course, physically. His height climbs with his age. He’s tall, and thin, and surprisingly strong. His intellectual capacities grow too, though much more slowly. In the last year, he’s started eating with a fork at our house. He can clear his plate. He helps us bring in the groceries from the car. Before Covid-19, certain cashiers at Trader Joe’s would let him scan items at the register. (I loved these cashiers.) At his residential home, where he spends every night and six out of seven days, I’m told that he’s largely stopped wearing pull-ups. They use “toilet” as a verb. “We toilet him every half-hour,” they say. But if he’s not wearing a diaper when we pick him up, he’ll have an accident in the car.

Who is my son becoming? How is he changing, not as a performer of tasks — dressing, eating, washing, putting away, sorting, and the like — but as a boy, on the cusp of puberty? What does this boy want? What kind of man does he want to become?

I crave for my son at 13 what I shouldn’t crave. And that’s to arrest his growth, to put him on hormone blockers. To keep him a child, smooth-faced and fresh. Because I’m not ready for his adolescence. I’m not ready for his puberty. What would his growing body even be preparing him for? A manhood that he won’t know? It’s very unlikely he’ll ever live on his own, or know sports, or travel, or romantic love.

But because Finn has neither the language, nor the understanding, to give his consent, my husband and I have never seriously considered hormone suppression therapy. For how long, and for what ultimate purpose? There’s no way I could ethically justify such an action. It’s not as simple as Alice’s Drink Me potion. And yet, I wanted to cling to 12.

Maybe this is why I forgot about his birthday. This surprised me, as I’m one who keeps track of the calendars in our family. Maybe I forgot because I didn’t want it to be his birthday. I didn’t want the new year upon us. I wanted more time in 12. I wanted to know more deeply who he was, who we were as a family, his family. I wanted to catch up before we moved forward. And I never feel truly caught up. To be honest, I don’t think I’m ready for what will happen as he gets acne and grows facial hair, pubic hair, the rest.

When I saw him for his birthday, I brought him a new shirt from the Gap, a seasonal toy from CVS — the same presents I bought him last year and the year before. We got him a cake and lit candles, but it was not clear whether he knew it was his birthday, or even what this means. That is, that he is special. That’s what birthdays are about, to focus attention on our beloveds, their specialness. I want him to know that he is deserving of this day, a day just for him. Do we do this by treating him to more sugary things, more soft things? Balloons that delight before they deflate? A battery-operated Halloween toy that he will love to death, until it’s broken in pieces and dropped in the trash? If we buy them for him, will he know how he is loved? That he is ours and we are his?

I have an urge to squeeze him, even to bite him. Anything to make him feel my love, to know it deeply. But then what? My love doesn’t transform. I suspect it can’t deliver what he really wants. Because I still don’t know what this boy really wants. I just know what I want, and that is to hold him, and I feel so lucky when I can.

Alysia Abbott, the author of “Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father,” leads the Memoir Incubator program at GrubStreet in Boston.

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