When my son was 4 years-young, I told myself I wasn’t doing something right. Maybe I didn’t have enough know-how about this so-called parenting gig. The moments when my son trapped himself into his own world, thinking about the same thing over-and-over again, became more than just moments. Transitioning from the car to home and from play-time to dinner were not just difficult, but overly-exhausting. And then the transitions from my home to my co-parent’s home ended in tears, non-verbal patterns, hiding under tables, rolling on the floors, and screeching.
I was an assistant principal and an experienced classroom teacher- and I still am. I engaged with young people on a daily basis. I knew all the latest research about trauma-informed practices, Love & Logic@, adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), behavior patterns, attendance issues and more. I was the person that others sought out when their own child experienced something odd or off. And, I loved it.
However, what was I doing wrong with my own child? The daily mantra of “what am I doing wrong?” repeated in my head. And, eventually, I actually believed the root cause of my son’s distress in life was because of me and the failed happy-family I’d provided him.
Thankfully, there is a piece in me that always wants to know why. Why couldn’t my son look at someone when they spoke to him? Why did my son run into a room when there were “too many humans” (as he said and still says)? Why would my son only drink Carnation Instant Breakfast Vanilla and toast with seedless strawberry jam on it (every morning for breakfast)? And, because I didn’t know the answers, I began my quest to find the answers from professionals who did.
The journey began after, what I recall, was a catastrophic meltdown about transitioning to my co-parent’s home. The crying was so intense that I’m sure the neighbors questioned whether to call the police. Then there was the hiding (under the table) and in any small space he could find. This went on for a grueling hour until his dad eventually lovingly picked-up my son into his arms and carried him to the car. The screams heightened and so did the long arms reaching for me, “Mama, Mama!” he cried. And then my eyes filled with tears. Why was my son in so much agony about this transition? And why was my daughter, already sitting in her car seat of my co-parent’s car, giggling and cooing. How could I help my son to be more content? To be happy?
The first professional we met with, a child psychologist, met with my son in the hallway next to his office. This was the happy-medium between the actual therapy room and the waiting space. The reoccurring appointment happened twice per week for two months. Eventually, my son felt comfortable enough to join the psychologist in his office. However, he refused to talk with him once he discovered all of the toys. Or perhaps he just didn’t feel comfortable with this doctor. I’ll never know. Alas, the final recommendation from the psychologist: find another professional.
And I did find another professional. I found the professional who connected (and still does) with my son, and ultimately, walked me through his diagnosis. My son found respite in the place where he could put together intricate puzzles and build marble runs. He found a sense of self when it was okay to rock back-and-forth while playing with sensory sand in the large make-shift sandbox the was stored under the psychologist’s couch. And, then, my son felt exhilarated when the child psychologist began testing him (with puzzles, with numbers, through language and with his speech). In fact, my son’s sessions for testing went longer than the traditional hour because he was so enthralled with the task of completing something and then mastering it.
I remember sitting in these sessions, thinking, “This is amazing! He wants to test his skills! He wants to engage in something!” I told myself, the educational professional, that these tests were not going to uncover anything. If anything, the tests might just show how smart he really is. In fact, I told myself, these tests might just tell us that he isn’t being challenged to his fullest. Perhaps this is what I was doing wrong. …
Well, this was part of it. Yes, my son is incredibly smart with puzzles, with building, with engineering, and with math. And, yes, he wasn’t being challenged enough – or rather – he was being expected to strive at everyday tasks and occupational skills that neurotypical kids could do. And then, the child psychologist said to me and my co-parent, “Your son is on the autism spectrum.”
In that moment, images and thoughts raced through my heads: he would be bullied; he would never fit in; he would lead a life of struggle; I would lead a life of struggle; this wasn’t fair; why me?; why him?; what would happen next?; would he ever have his own family?; what about a job?; would he need to attend a special school?; he would never have friends; he would never have good memories of growing up; and on. …
And those words sank in. My co-parent and I shared those words with our family and friends. Some were in disbelief. Some said, “yes, I already knew.” And some said nothing at all.
And I cried.
And I cried.
And I cried.
And then I realized there was beauty in the autism spectrum diagnosis. I realized that not only did I now have a why, but I also had a new purpose in life. Both of my kids needed their mother to be whole, to be grounded, to be accepting of any and all. I found my energy and my why for being the mother that I strive to be every day. I found out that by accepting my son, the whole person, that I could focus more on the love and his beautiful spirit. I found out that by accepting my son, I no longer needed to apologize to others when he didn’t respond to their questions or give them eye contact. Instead, I could smile and embrace him. I could giggle with him and be silly, too. I found out that there was nothing wrong with my son – or with me. Our small family was everything it was meant to be: just right.