Parenting is no joke and I sometimes find myself getting caught up in the emotions of my own kids. When they feel sad, I tend to take on that sadness, too. When they are excited and happy for life, I also carry that energy. Perhaps this is one of those parenting things, or perhaps it is because I’m an empath. Whatever the reason, I do know it is important to shift these daily feelings so that my kids are picking up on my energy every day.
I can make a choice each day to be positive, loving, and filled with heart, or I can choose to sit in the constant turbulence of these times, projecting feelings of uncertainty and anxiety onto my kids. I’m not saying that we need to be happy and joy-filled every moment of the day because that, honestly, sounds exhausting. Instead, when we fill our hearts with the love with have for our kids, the smell of the cinnamon and oatmeal simmering, the beautiful song of the oriole bird from our outside feeder, then we shift the way we show up every day. And, this is very hard work for parents, because life does get tough, there are struggles, and we do feel all of our emotions.
In fact, we do carry the rainbow of emotions with us each day. Whether we choose to show these emotions to our world – or shove them down with a bar of dark chocolate, zone out in front of the TV, or open a bottle of our favorite libation, then we are actually giving ourselves a false sense of our own feelings. And, as you already know, when we do this we are also showing up to our world in an unauthentic way.
Let’s go a little deeper here. From my personal journey as a parent, I know that when I constantly think about my to-do list, which right now consists of getting my grass cut, finishing the trim that frames my bedroom door, nourish my kids with healthy foods (even though they still indulge frequently into sweets) and work, hard, really hard so I can provide the life that my kids and I deserve. And all of this causes stress, which leads to me feeling anxious and overwhelmed. While I’m getting vulnerable with you, I’m also sharing with you the very root of why my own kids pick up feelings of anxiety and overwhelm. My own children learn from me. They learn that when something is done or the list is too big, that I worry about it. They learn this and then apply it to their own daily doings and existence.
It’s easy to find that bar of dark chocolate, again, and indulge in the richness and chase away those feelings. It is hard to admit my own emotional energy is deeply connected to my family’s energy. However, in doing so, I am taking a step into my emotional wellbeing – and also modeling for my kids what this feels like. And, let me tell you, it feels like a vibrant, warm light. It feels like a million small jelly bubbles surrounding your body, cushioning your every movement. It feels like the life I want my own kids to experience as they grow into teens (aghast!) and eventually into adults.
You may be saying, “Okay, Amanda, I get it. Now what?” Here are some of the strategies I use to support my kiddos (and me):
- When I feel something, whether it be sad, happy, or calm, I voice this to my kids. I say something like, “Right now, I am feeling calm because I just finished meditating,” or, “I am feeling sad right now because I miss seeing my friends in Seattle” (ladies, you know who you are!).
- Avoid phrases such as, “You shouldn’t feel angry, jealous, sad, etc. right now.” Emotions are real and part of the rainbow we carry with us each day. Honor what your child is feeling and offer them ways to cope with that feeling. I work really closely with my child’s psychologist to understand what these strategies might be. Some of the things that work for my kiddos are going to their calm corners (small areas in our house that are set up with coloring, books, comfy pillows, low lighting) so they can decompress and work through their emotions.
- Imagine what it might feel like to be a child in today’s world. While their feelings about a broken toy or a missing stuffed animal may seem trite in our big, chaotic worlds, it is your child’s own world and this is what they know to be true. Honor this.
- Don’t compare. Seriously, it isn’t good for you or your children. You are your own beautiful, vibrant vessel. Own it and love it.
And, in reading this blog post, you are also taking your first step into creating more emotional intelligence in your and your child’s own worlds. I thank you for showing up to our world in your own beautiful, vibrant and authentic way. Remember, parenting is one of the most rewarding and scary jobs. You can do this!
Ten weeks ago I started a new adventure: a podcast. This podcasting world is still very new to me. I sometimes stumble when searching for the right words. I embrace technology and I also embrace simplicity; sometimes these two worlds collide without grace. And, getting comfortable in my closet, the only quiet place in my house, is a bit of a challenge still. Yet, I am hungry for more learning; more conversations; and more reflection. Why?
Shared experiences: Through my conversations with autism parents and individuals on the autism spectrum, my learning is that I am not alone. If anything, we collectively have more experiences that bring us together than those that divide us. Take my conversation with Catherine Hughes, the Chief Inspiration Officer of Caffeinated Advocate, for example. Much of her early parenting journey was molded by the cold stares and harsh judgments from people who didn’t even know her. In fact, her journey as an autism mother started when she was arrested because of a snap-judgment made about Catherine’s parenting during her son’s sensory meltdown. I am also aware of sensory meltdowns, and I have also lived in fear of what others will think of me when watching how I respond to and support my son when his world is overtaken by his surroundings. Am I worthy of this mothering gig?
Empathy is the only option: Yes, we are all uniquely different. We are beautiful and different snowflakes: no two are alike. When we assume that our children will respond and react the same way as another child, either with autism or not, then we are telling the world that listening to someone else’s perspective is no longer important. In essence, the question that I continue to hear throughout my conversations is this one: How can I help? This is the question that mothers with kids having a sensory meltdown want to hear from us, rather than steely stare and hushed talked to others. This is the same question that self-advocates want others to ask when we notice someone who is pacing in the grocery aisles because of feelings of overwhelm and frustration. And, this, is the question that our kids deserve to hear. Our kids need to hear that caring humans surround them and are also there to support their parents and friends and neighbors in times of need.
Let go of expectations around desired outcomes: I’ll be the first to raise my hand with a response to this statement. I truly hold so many expectations around my professional life, my fitness goals, my sleep patterns, how my kids SHOULD respond, and even my love life. And, you guessed it. The tighter we hold onto to our desired outcomes, then the more difficult it becomes to just respond in the moment; to be present; to listen to each other. As an autism mom, I know the expectations that I put onto myself and, yes, even my own kids because I am so committed to goals and how goals can help us realize our dreams when they bloom. I am also learning, and practicing more and more, that just because I’m armed with so much knowledge from my twenty-years serving in public education as both a teacher and a school administrator, doesn’t mean that I know what is best in every moment for my own kids. My guests on my podcast have certainly taught me this in more ways than I can even refer to right now.
So, thank you to each of you who has tuned into the Empathy, Joy & Autism podcast. Thank you to my guests who are my teachers of courage and empathy.
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Have the words, “I’m not doing enough,” or “I’m failing my kids,” ever crawled into your mind? Lately, these phrases seem to be sneaking in and surprising me, leaving me feeling a bit anxious about “what more” that I can give. Just recently, my family went into quarantine because of some positive COVID results. (And, yes, we are all recovered and doing okay). The three weeks inside our home working as an assistant principal from my laptop computer, taking temperatures and tracking O2 levels, and negotiating with my own children to engage in online learning were, undoubtedly, some of the most complex moments I’ve recently experienced.
The impact of this pandemic shook me in these recent weeks because I watched my son digress rock his body back-and-forth not just during his online learning, but during our discombobulated dinner time and before falling asleep at night. There were days when my son relearned how to find the right temperature with the shower faucet. And when our online shopping order brought a different brand of chicken nuggets, there was a period of five days when the only thing that was consumed was taco shells with refried beans and bowls of oatmeal. His bi-weekly ABA in-home therapy and center programs extinguished leaving me to fill in the necessary gaps with social skills and idioms.
Please hear me, I do consider my family fortunate because our COVID symptoms made a known presence for about 10 days. We experienced fevers, root-pulling fatigue, sharp body aches, and bouts of nausea. Our nights consisted of my son waking-up numerous nights around 2 AM because his over-the-counter ibuprofen wore off and the only thing he could feel was his body screaming. He told me things like, “Mom, my body has a headache.” and “I can’t feel my legs right now.” And when his fever dropped just ever so slightly, Buddy would find any stored energy to zip through the house, playing and laughing just like normal. However, before long, all his energy was zapped, and he would crawl onto the couch for a nap (something I haven’t seen him do since he was 3 years old). Moments like this prompted me to wonder if my kids were drinking enough fluids and if was I doing enough?
And when my daughter started to doze off in her virtual classes and also ask for a break from school so she could take a nap, I finally realized something had to give for the time being: my job. So, we watched loads of movies and cooking shows. We tried new recipes and then took naps wherever the fatigue took over. Many days, my son snoozed with his beloved Aussie dog on her bed in the middle of our family room. My daughter enjoyed more of the comfort of the couch and snuggly blankets with her three drinks within close reach. There were also new life skills developing: Buddy quickly learned how to monitor his O2 levels and his temperature – and proceeded to check both Sissy and my vitals whenever he could. I watched my son as he learned to take care of himself as witnessed in his comments such as, “I need more to drink because my body is weak right now, ” and “I haven’t had my Vitamin C today, Mom,” nudging me as a reminder. And on these days, I secretly wished my kids could just find a book and read all day. What had I not done to invest in their love of reading?
Somewhere between days 9 and 14, all existing house rules were suddenly null-and-void. Either it was the complete fatigue consuming my body or the sheer-lack of not knowing what to do anymore, that the words, “Yes, you can ride your scooter in the house,” came from my mouth. Suddenly Sissy and Buddy glided from one room to another, giggling because they knew they had “won over” their mom. And after those words came from my mouth, other strange things started to get “mom-approved.” For whatever reason, I confirmed to my kids that they could use the permanent markers on shirts of their choice. My son, being the neat and tidy kid that he is, found his bleach-white polo shirt for this new project. My daughter picked out her favorite pink, sparkly shirt for this creative endeavor. They both created lines and rainbows and doodles on their shirts during one of my Zoom meetings. After wondering why the house sat in silence, I turned off my video and muted myself (because, yes, Zoom allows us to gracefully exit like that) my meeting to find both of my kids quietly creating masterpieces (on cardboard – thank goodness) with permanent markers on the floor. In moments such as these, words such as, “I’ve had enough. I can’t anymore,” trickled through me.
Reminding myself – and you – that it is okay to take a break. It’s okay to bend your rules sometimes to allow for the flood of change happening in our world not to envelop you. I believe that while I want so much to be doing more: more 1:1 time with online learning, more silent reading before bedtime, more dedicated time for creativity in our makeshift makerspace in the garage. When so much of the world we live in today is about shifting and pivoting, I believe we are doing enough. I believe, most days, that I am doing enough. However, I’m a mom and I’m human and there are times when it nice to be reminded that, “yes, I am enough.” And, so are you.
Just a few weeks ago my son asked me about autism. This question didn’t surprise me, make me wiggle inside, or even make me pause (for too long that is). The simple question, “Mom, I think I have autism, right?” started the whirling, swirling, beautiful 50-second conversation between Buddy and me.
“Yes, Buddy, you are you and autism is part of you, but it isn’t all of you.” I received a confused look from my 10-years young boy who clearly needed a different kind of answer to his question.
“Autism is a superpower,” I started. “It is your gift to the world. It is how you build things in your mind and then re-create them with your legos or a cardboard box. It is the puzzle that takes me three weeks to complete, yet invites you to finish in three hours. Your superpower is solving a math problem that seems too complex. It is how you focus on something so intently, even for hours, that you eventually become a master at it. It is the way you make sense of the world when you move and make your awesome sounds. It is the superpower that I don’t have.”
“Okay, Mom. Why do I have this superpower? Does Sissy have this same power?” asked a curious voice.
“Buddy, your superpower is unique, different than Sissy’s powers. Sissy is gifted in creating colorful masterpieces with her paints and doodle pens. She knows how to craft small lunchboxes and paint-pallets for her favorite doll, Mary Ellen. Sissy knows how to put ingredients into a pot and season them so they taste yummy. She dances and sings because it makes her feel happy inside.”
“Hum,” came a sound from my son’s buzzing mind through his mouth. “Thanks, Mom. I’m ready to play my game, again,” said a matter-of-fact voice. And just like that, Buddy shifted his thinking into the puzzle game on his device, moving pieces and rotating angles with his fingers.
I believe in this moment my son grew into himself just a little more. He took a big, confident step into recognizing that he is unique just like his sister is unique. He found a moment to hear that autism spectrum disorder is actually pretty cool, and that he’s capacity in the world is greater than he ever conjured by himself. Buddy noticed that life isn’t about what makes us different from others; rather, what makes each of us unique and special to the world.
I understand that my son’s perspective of the world is based on his 10-years of life, hundreds of hours of therapy, and many moments that probably felt chaotic in his small body. I also know that there is nothing extraordinary about perceving unique abilities as superpowers. I ask that you think about your own superpower – and then the superpower that your child or loved one offers the world. I ask that you look at these powers as what makes the person whole, rather than what they are lacking in life. Because when we do this, we are creating a world where all abilities are honored and valued.
And, you ask what my superpower is? Well, I believe my superpower is listening even when no one else will. My power is in the advocacy for the autism community that continues to grow despite others telling me otherwise. It is in the song, “Seasons of Love,” I sing at night to my daughter every night because it helps her to find sleep. My superpower is in the good-morning bowl of oatmeal that Buddy enjoys each day. My superpower is the part of me that no one else can feel.
So, what is your superpower?
When I heard the words, “is it okay if I act like an autistic and screech at you?”, a sharp pain heaved inside my body. The words came out of the person’s mouth so easily, effortlessly, as if the language used were commonplace. My mind swirled into the moments when my own son recently worked with his ABA therapist and shared that he screeched at others when he felt stressed or scared. In a very vulnerable moment, my son, Buddy, shared with me how he likes to make a noise like a pterodactyl because he doesn’t know how to express his stress at the moment. Instead, he envelopes himself into the high-pitched screech that signals to me and his loved ones, that something isn’t right in life. He sometimes raises his arms up in the air and then flaps them up-and-down, repeatedly, as if he were a pterodactyl flying through the sky. I know in this moment that my cue is to turn down the noise in the house, dim the lights, and diffuse some vetiver oil into the room. I also know this is my moment to listen to his screech because it is his moment of stress. His stress, like mine, can sometimes consume my behaviors because it owns my thinking. And while I don’t make noises, I do, in fact, eat chocolate, isolate from my family, and even cry. Neither response is correct or right; however, both are responses to stress.
The words “is it okay if I act like an autistic and screech at you?”, prompted an abrupt, yet simple response: “Excuse me, do you know what you just said? Do you know how hurtful those words are?” After I received no response from this individual, I realized that my tone of voice wasn’t compassionate or calm. Instead, it was sharp and defensive. I dropped all my previous training and work in the education field in these few seconds. Yet, how can I expect a response from someone when I am only bouncing the ball back with the same judgment?
So, after a few days of reflection, I now believe my response would have been better received if I put aside my emotional connection to my son and focused more on empathy. Perhaps this individual would have received my perspective better if I shared why some individuals on the autism spectrum screech. Or maybe there could have been a conversation with an invitation to explore autism. Or maybe I would have come to understand this person was also victimized by hurtful words – and was only putting more back out into our world.
What does matter is that there is still great work to be done with creating more empathy around autism spectrum disorder. I invite you to say something the next time you hear a joke about a person with unique abilities. I ask you to say something not only because you may impact the viewpoint of the speaker, but you may inspire an onlooker to do the same. And, while the words I heard still rattle like a sharp needle in my brain, I do know that I can do better. We can all do better. And, our world, our children, deserve to see this kind of better – the kindness and empathy tucked into the small moments.
Can you join me?