The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A son with ADHD and autism spectrum disorder is heading to middle school

(The Washington Post/Prisma filter/iStock)
Placeholder while article actions load

Q: My 11-year-old son, who has autism spectrum disorder and ADHD, is obsessed with Pokémon. I'd like him to exercise (besides walking to play Pokémon Go), but he seems uninterested in everything except unstructured swimming/pool time.

How do I entice him to move, or are Pokémon Go walks enough? I'm also concerned about how he will do socially in middle school when he transitions. Right now, he doesn't care about what other people think.

Are these valid concerns, or should I relax on those? What are your suggestions for getting him to move (if you think he should)? What are your recommendations for him to socialize and branch out in preparation for middle school? I'm concerned he will be one of those aimless kids who gets into drugs, as described in Tony Attwood's "Complete Guide to Asperger's Syndrome." I can't do everything, but I can try to steer things and set the environment. Or is an obsession with Pokémon enough? He wants me to learn Pokémon, but it's more than I have the bandwidth for. Thank you.

A: Thank you for your note. It’s easy to worry that our autistic children will turn into “one of those aimless kids who gets into drugs.” Our culture is only beginning to accept that autism can be viewed as a part of neurodiversity, not an abnormal diagnosis, and therefore, our culture is slow to see autistic children as having bright and fulfilling futures. And because your son is already at a challenging age, it can feel even more daunting as he moves out more and more into the world.

Your first bit of homework is to always begin with yourself: your worries, anxieties, fears and regrets. I’m never going to tell you to ignore or stuff down your fears; instead, I want you to continuously fact-check them. For instance, your son is going into middle school, which is a big change for both of you. You’re worried about his social experience there, and there’s no way I would tell you this is a “silly” concern. You’re right to be concerned about how he will fare and be treated, so let’s turn that worry into tangible action: Contact the middle school, and find out what services or groups are available for your son. Not every group will be an instant match, but you only need one to click. Also, connect with the counselors and special-education teachers to bring them into your attachment village. As your son takes on more autonomy, it’s even more important to bring more caring adults into his life. It lifts the burden on you (a little bit), and it will help your son to feel oriented and confident in middle school.

As for friendships, you may feel as if you’re losing more and more control over this aspect of his life, but there are plenty of groups out there to partner with. My friend Holly Blanc Moses, a licensed counselor and expert in ADHD, autism and anxiety, says: “Supporting special interests is a great way to improve mental and physical health, increase confidence and develop friendships. Consider signing up for a Pokémon social group or class on Check out a local autism parent group on Facebook, and see who wants to play Pokémon and swim.”

When I read your note, I didn’t think it was such a bad thing that he loves Pokémon and swimming. I think you need to focus on finding friends who share his interests and taking care of yourself when you become overly bored, which is bound to happen.

“Rather than encouraging your son to branch out, I would go all in,” says Debbie Reber, founder of Tilt Parenting and author of “Differently Wired: Raising an Exceptional Child in a Conventional World.” “Differently wired kids’ passions are an ideal gateway to their growth and development.”

She suggests talking with your child about your separate fitness goals and collaborating on a plan to reach those goals. Pokémon Go walks and unstructured swimming sound great, “or you and your son could brainstorm fun ways to incorporate running or parkour or silly physical challenges into the outings,” she says. “Socially, Pokémon may end up connecting your son with other kids in middle school, as well as give him a sense of identity and belonging.”

Lastly, she says, ask thoughtful questions about Pokémon that encourage self-exploration, and spend time with him when he’s in Pokémon mode. “Even if you don’t have the bandwidth to immerse yourself . . . , showing interest and validating his passion will deepen your connection at a pivotal time in your son’s life, as well as create opportunities for supporting him in better understanding himself.”

Although parenting differently wired children can be overwhelming, it’s important to take your family life day by day while continually reaching out for support and community. His time in middle school will bring gifts and challenges, which is true for every family with a middle-schooler, so try to stay patient, forgiving and hopeful. I also recommend listening to the great podcast called “The Autism ADHD Podcast” with Blanc Moses for more inspiration; check out the episodes “Special Interests with Dr. Temple Grandin” and “7 Ways to Find Friends for Children with Autism and/or ADHD.”

Good luck.

More from Lifestyle:

Our son with autism needs treatment. But how much?

My 9-year-old is struggling with friendships at school. How can I help her?

5 ways to make the most of your child’s IEP meeting

9 ways parents can empower a child with learning issues

Why my autistic son thrived during pandemic school closures