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!”
My son has been on this earth for over 9 years, and Autism is an integral part of the person that he is. It has helped shape him into a unique individual who perceives the world in fascinating ways. He sees things I would never see. Autism has also presented him with some challenges. I still recall so vividly the first time he asked me, “What is Autism?” I tried to be empowering with my answer but also honest about how it may cause him to have to work harder at some things. The conversation helped him understand himself better and why he feels frustrated at times. He also became excited about his “special brain” (as he calls it), and he has embraced his Autistic identity.
At the beginning of our journey I was the one who spoke and advocated for him. As he grew older we began to tell his story together. One of the ways we did that was by starting a yearly ritual of explaining Autism to his classmates. He and I decided together what we wanted to share. I was so proud of him and his 1st grade classmates when I first watched them have a honest conversation about being different. You are never too young to learn to be kind and accepting of one another! Continue reading
I am married, have two children, and I’m still growing. Each day provides opportunities for education about my inner self, about relationships, and about life. Many of these lessons were learned when my youngest son, who is autistic, was very little. I love and respect my son, and wanted to do whatever I could to support him and help him to thrive. As the result of our journey, and meeting other parents along the way, I slowly began to develop some guiding principles that still I try to remember when I find myself in difficult situations. I TRY to remember, anyway. I may have learned these things, but that doesn’t mean I have mastered them. I am still a work in progress. Here is my list so far of things that parenting a child with special needs has taught me about life in general:
- Beauty can be found in unexpected places. This first one may sound trite, but is an essential truth I cling to. Life can present us with struggles, yet it is in the midst of darkness that we truly appreciate the light. During our journey I have learned about strength, love, perseverance, and forgiveness. I have also met some amazing people along the way.
- Embrace what makes life unique. The world is full of opportunities for adventure. It is also populated by a gloriously diverse people who have a lot to teach us, and deserve our respect and acceptance. Different is AWESOME, and can provide a refreshing new perspective on things. In my house we call it “Not Boring.”
- Parenting can be hard sometimes. Special-needs or not, it can be exhausting to have another human being be dependent on you for all their needs. That doesn’t mean that our children are a burden, because we LOVE them. However, full schedules, perpetual problem-solving, and things like constant medical concerns can make us weary.
- Ask for what you need. The people in our life don’t always know how best to help us. They may also assume we don’t need anything if we don’t ask, so speak up. Sometimes we require assistance to get through. It’s not selfish or weak to ask for help.
- There will be periods in our life where it feels like we take more than we give. This can be especially hard for caregivers to accept. Remember that our worth is not defined solely by what we do for others. There will be other times in your life when you will be in a position to help someone else who is in need. The scales are never balanced.
- You are stronger than you think. “I don’t know how you do it,” I have heard people say. We just do what we have to. I think we often underestimate our own abilities and don’t realize how strong we are until given an opportunity to flex our muscles. I am immensely impressed by the strength and resilience displayed by my son, and some of the obstacles that he has overcome. The power of the human spirit never ceases to amaze me, and adversity can teach us and help us to grow. But it is important to remember this next one…