Dancing With Flamingos: A Celebration of My Youngest Son

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Parenting my youngest child has been quite an adventure. He is funny, kind, smart, creative, exuberant, and autistic. Every day, it seems, he teaches me something new. His unique perspective on the world is often surprising, and the way he fully engages with whatever experience life has to offer is a constant delight.

Something that happened during a recent trip to the zoo is a perfect example. We were watching a flock of flamingos when suddenly they all began to vocalize at once. It sounded like a bunch of noise to me, but I noticed that my son had begun to move. First he bounced, and then he was dancing; feet shifting, arms outstretched. He instinctively sensed the rhythm and the music in the flamingos’ calls to one another, and he couldn’t help but join in. His body demanded it, and he gave himself to it freely and joyfully.  It was beautiful to see.

My son dances quite often, no matter where he is or who is watching. His big brother asked him once, as big brothers do, “Why are you dancing?”

My youngest simply replied, “I do what I want!”

He often operates on pure instinct and emotion. Continue reading

See Different, Be Different: Thoughts on Neurodiversity and More

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I was recently asked to speak at at Autism Awareness Month event that was held by the exceptional education department of our local school system, and the audience was parents of autistic children. This is the transcript from that event, and is basically most of what I want to say about autism and neurodiversity all crammed into one post. But first some disclaimers: I am not perfect, I screw up all the time, and am still fumbling my way through this parenting thing.

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I am also not an “expert,” nor am I Autistic* (see update), although I am neurodivergent. I am a mom and an advocate and a writer,  and I learn through experience, by asking a lot of questions, and by doing a lot of research. (*UPDATE: A few months after I wrote this post I was unofficially identified as on the spectrum by a therapist. In my FORTIES. It was based upon her observations rather than diagnostic testing, but nevertheless it was a revelation.)

My perspective may also be different than yours, but one thing I have learned along this journey is to not devalue someone else’s opinion just because their situation isn’t the same as my own. We should be open to considering one another’s viewpoints. We also should avoid the danger of turning this into a competition of whose struggles are worse, and unfortunately we have all seen that happen.

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(Image is inspired by the post “20 Things That Parenting a Child With Special Needs has Taught Me About Life in General.”)

We ourselves may have fallen prey to the dangers of comparison, by saying things like, “Well, at least your child can…”, or “You don’t know what it’s like to…” Friends, let me warn you that kind of thinking is a trap. Parenting is hard, I know that. Some days are exhausting and even sad. Life in general can be hard, and living with any sort of disability can be hard. But we are all in this together, and no matter where we are, or where our children are in the journey, we can learn from one another. Then when we get weary we have each other for support.

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One way I try to help encourage other parents and support the Neurodiverse community is by writing and sharing my voice. I hope to help make the world a safer place for those who are different. I want to help de-stigmatize DIFFERENT. Because without our differences, the world would be VERY boring. Different is the new normal!

So I came up with the slogan: See Different, Be Different (image at top of post). Different is not bad, it’s not broken, or as Temple Grandin says, different is not less.

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Continue reading

The Day a Sea Lion Wanted to Play: Autism Acceptance in Unexpected Places

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We all want to feel happy, connected, and accepted. Sometimes that is found in ways we least expect.

One late winter day my family visited the zoo in Washington, D.C. It was early and we had the underwater viewing area at the sea lion exhibit all to ourselves. My youngest son had on a jacket with contrasting colors and we noticed it seemed to catch the attention of one particularly curious sea lion. I starting recording as the two darted back and forth on opposite sides of the glass, and she followed his every move. When my son realized what was going on he joyfully cried out, “She likes me!”

My son is *Autistic, and social interaction as well as playing with other children is sometimes hard and complicated. Some research has shown that children with Autism and other disabilities are actually  2-3 times more likely to be bullied by their peers. They also often find it easier to relate to animals and can connect with them more easily than with people.

My son was thrilled to find a playmate that day and to feel free to be himself. It came so easily. All the sea lion wanted was to play, and nothing else mattered; not social rules, not appearance. Just fun.

We learned later that the sea lion was named Sophie, and she was famous for interacting with her visitors. She accepted all potential playmates equally, but I would wager that few were as enthusiastic as my youngest son. As their game of follow-the-leader continued, he exclaimed, “THIS IS THE BEST THING OF MY LIFE!”
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Autism ACTION Month

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April is “Autism Awareness Month,” but many say that mere acceptance is not enough. Autistic people are far too often marginalized and dismissed. Autistic adults are aware that many who claim to speak for the Autism community don’t actually ask Autistic people for their opinion. They are aware that many businesses refuse to give them a chance at meaningful employment. Parents are aware of the isolation that their Autistic children feel when they are mocked by their peers, and they are aware of the lack of sufficient resources to help their children thrive in schools.

It is not enough to be aware one month of the year, and sometimes it seems like the only people really paying attention to Autism Awareness Month are people in the community. The rest seem to just want to donate money to an Autism charity to ease their conscience and feel like they made a difference.

A startling, heartbreaking example of why we need to do MORE happened while my friend, Cindy, was out with her son, Ty. Ty is Autistic and has limited speech. He’s also sweet and funny and loved by many. Cindy gave me permission to share details of an encounter they had while inside a store:

We were approached by an employee who seemed to have an intellectual disability of some kind. “Is he special?” He asked, pointing at Ty. “He sure is!” I said. “He is VERY special and I love him very much.”

The man said, “I’m special too. So I understand. He can be my friend”. I assured him that we could be his friend too, and agreed we’d high-five him whenever we shopped there. He liked this.

“Of course, everyone else thinks we are freaks”, he said.

What could I do but laugh? “Well maybe we are ALL freaks”, I said.

As I read Cindy’s words my emotions changed from inspired to heartbroken.

Everyone else thinks we are freaks,he said. NO ONE should have to feel that way. We need to do better to make the world a more accepting place for Autism.

That young man saw a kindred spirit in Ty and asked him to be his friend. If we want to make a difference then we too should be a friend to this man and other Autistic people. And we should do it all year round, not just in April. But how?

Want to REALLY make a difference? ACCEPT. ACCOMMODATE. APPRECIATE. ADVOCATE. Take ACTION. Keep reading for some suggestions of ways that we can help improve the lives of people with Autism. They don’t need our pity, but they do need our support.  Continue reading

A Cashier Showed Us Extra Kindness, but Then She Thanked US!

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The warmth and graciousness experienced by my family at a Target checkout counter this past weekend still has me smiling. A cashier showed us what may seem to some as a simple kindness, but to us it was significant. Kindness is no longer something that I take for granted in today’s society.

My two sons had finally decided to spend some of their Christmas money, so we headed to Target and each of them picked out a video game. A Manager came over to assist our cashier as we checked out, and my youngest decided he wanted to talk to them. He is 9 years old, *Autistic (*not a bad word, see below), and very outgoing. He happily chatted away with the two ladies, excited about his new video game.

“You see that? That’s MY Super Mario Bros. 2 video game. I am buying it with MY own money! You wanna know how to play it? First you get some coins. And then you get some other coins. Basically it’s coins, coins, and more coins! And did I forget to mention COINS?” He really got on a roll and was having some fun joking with them.

The Manager grinned, obviously picking up on his joking. She responded, playing along, “Soooo, maybe the best thing about the game is the COINS, then?”

After we checked out she looked at me and said with a sincere smile, “Thank you for letting him talk to me! He’s a cutie!”

And just like that the scene went from heartwarming to tear-inducing, and I turned into a weepy Mom mess.

SHE said thank you. She treated my son with kindness that many would not, and then SHE thanked US for the privilege. She saw my son for the energetic, engaging, and extraordinary young man that he is.  Continue reading