Unconditional Sibling Love

I’ve found it very difficult to protect my heart when it’s beating outside of my body. These days it’s running around in the form of little sandy-haired, blue-eyed kids, in such vulnerable form.  

I’ve wanted to protect these two from the Big Bad World since the moment I met them. Most of the time, my boy’s adventurous spirit would get in the way of the bubble wrapped life I had in mind for him.  

I wasn’t ready for fearless. I wasn’t ready for vulnerable. I wasn’t ready for autism.

How will I protect him now? Will he be OK?

Will he ever talk? Attend school? Be bullied on the playground? Will he have a job? Drive? Live independently? Fall in love? And commence the spiral to nowhere.

As parents, we never want our children to feel pain and sadness. Hunger or cold. Lost or confused. It tears me up from the inside out when I look into my boy’s eyes and see how confused and frustrated he can become.

I remember a moment years ago when, during one of his meltdowns, his 2-year-old little sister hugged him and would not let go. Eventually he started laughing because it became a game to try and get her off him.

I noticed something that day. The way she looked at him. It was simple and unconditional adoration. In her eyes, he isn’t “different”. He is her big brother. Her hero. Her person.

I pray that she will always see him in that same light. As time passes, the weight of his world will inevitably impact hers more.  New challenges will arise, they both will grow and change, but oh, how I hope that their unconditional love remains the same.

My children are both unique and made for one another. I can’t catch them every time they fall, but I can teach them how to help one another back up. To comfort one another. To laugh together.

They have shown us fearless. They have taught us how to find comfort in vulnerability.

My son has a phenomenal tribe of family, friends, doctors, teachers, therapists, specialists, and peers to help raise him up as high as he can go.

And he has her.

So just like that, I had all the answers to that pesky spiral to nowhere:

He’s going to be amazing.

They both are.

E I G H T

Joy.  I want to get it right, explaining this birthday boy to you, and joy is what comes to mind over and over again.

Sometimes fragile but mostly fearless, he’s going to discover, celebrate, and remember every little thing about this big old world.

He finds the joy around him all the time… a spontaneous “moo!” to the cows out his car window and an ecstatic “choo choo!” when we are lucky enough to spot a real-life train.

I know other eight-year-olds might not do that, and that’s okay. Sometimes he celebrates joy in atypical ways or in places you wouldn’t expect. But it’s always there with him, radiating throughout the room. 

He is happy in his soul.

We don’t waste moments with worry & comparison.  We left that game a long time ago. Wilson is in a league of his own, right where he belongs. 

We’ve been rushing this boy to grow his whole life. In true Wilson fashion, it will all be in his own time, and in his own way.  Now I see this big eight-year-old in front of me and pray for time to slow down, just a little.

I am so thankful for his joyous energy, his curiosity, and the way his happiness feels like sunshine.

Hoping this year is filled with chasing more trains, searching for the ends of rainbows, and that sense of wonder found only in a child’s heart.

autism & changing the world

When autism entered my life, I knew nothing about it. Books and the internet provided some information but at times they were also terrifying rabbit-holes to nowhere. No one was talking about autism. Because of this, I think the road to acceptance for many parents with special kids is very lonely and isolating.

It did not take long to realize that there was very little I could control about my son’s autism. We worked hard at various therapies all day long for very slow progress. We still do, and it is worth it.

We built a team of therapists, doctors, and interventionists to help him learn, keep him safe and help us learn to communicate with him.

The more I came to terms the impossibility of completely changing my son’s autism, I decided we were going to change the world instead.

I want the world to be easier for him to navigate through. I want awareness, kindness, acceptance and inclusion to surround him wherever he goes.

I want people to know my boy, to understand him. I know this is not going to be easy. We work every day to do that ourselves.

I want people to know that his favorite color is red. He has never told me this, I just know.

I want children to understand that he wants to play with them, even though it does not always look that way. They need to know that most of the time his words are trapped somewhere deep inside of him. That he is not intentionally ignoring them and that his hearing is perfectly fine. He just does not always understand their words, but maybe they could show him instead.

You see, too many words get all mixed up in his head. But if you take his hand or tap his shoulder and show him the way, he just may follow.

Little friends need to know that he might not share the toys that are precious to him on a particular day because the way he has them lined up and organized is what he depends on to make him feel calm and like all is right in the world.

I want the shock and awe stares during the public meltdowns to disappear. Our meltdowns are not the typical toddler I-want-a-candy-bar kind. They are communication breakdown, sensory overload, all- systems-firing and frightening. I want a stranger to tell me I am doing a good job or acknowledge that being a mom is hard, instead of a judgmental glance when I struggle to pick my child up off the parking lot pavement.

This is where we begin to try and change the world, by sharing one boy’s journey with autism. Let him be your reminder that things are not always as they seem and to always lead with kindness and patience.

We are so thankful that you are here with us!

growth, change, & autism

One clear memory from Wilson’s autism diagnosis evaluation has stuck with me.

We sat in a stark room with no windows. The psychiatrist had brought out one activity at a time, then locked them up in a cupboard once they were done.  I vaguely remember a baby, and a pretend birthday cake, and so many blank stares and unanswered questions.  

I sat quietly in the corner as they had requested. No jumping in to answer for him or prompt and encourage him.  The psychiatrist asked me to call his name from across the empty room. 

“Wilson.  Wilson. Wilson!” 

Nothing. He didn’t even turn his head in my general direction.

He wasn’t distracted by toys, which was the reason I had convinced myself he didn’t usually respond to my calls for his attention.  He just casually looked at the doctor, then around the bland room.

It truly seemed like he could not hear me. But we had already been to all those specialists for all of that testing by the time we landed in this office for this autism spectrum disorder evaluation. He could hear perfectly fine.

The psychiatrist asked me to do whatever it is that I do to get his attention at home. So, I said, “Hey buddy!” and eventually walked over and touched his shoulder.

I told her we wondered if he thought his name was “Buddy” since we called him that so often.  Maybe that was why he didn’t respond to his name yet.

Hope and denial and acceptance ran murky lines during those first few years.

Fast forward five years, and I must tell you this boy doesn’t miss an opportunity to say “Hi, Mommy!” or run to the door to say “Hi, Daddy!” when he hears his dad’s truck coming up the driveway.

Change happens. Growth will happen. It may look different for each child, but we will all see it, and we will all feel it.  We will all go through the phases we cannot wait to get out of and the moments we want to freeze in time.

So proud of how hard this boy has worked for all his growth.

For Wilson’s Tribe

While motherhood has certainly been my greatest adventure, the vulnerability in becoming a mom, and the mother of an autistic child, has been a substantial challenge for me. I found myself, for the first time in a long time, in need of help.  A lot of it. This has never been something I’ll easily admit, ask for, or receive.

Thankfully, I am surrounded by the most patient, kind, and generous humans who constantly offer their support and lift this family up.

Our friends and family and friends who are family, you open your homes to our curious boy to redecorate, climb on furniture, your laps, and shoulders, and oblige him in his relentless requests to be chased in circles. You continually say “hi” and attempt to engage with our little man, even when you know you will likely not hear a response. Someday, he will hear you, and see you, and you will get to see his sweet face light up like never before. You love our children like your own and you will never know what that truly means to us. 

His teachers, behavior interventionists, doctors, therapists, and caregivers, you are patient, loving and recognize the little stuff can be very big stuff for him.  You remain so calm through the storms. You help us set goals and teach our little man how to crush them.

His little buddies, you have the most innocent, loving hearts.  You don’t see “different”, you just see him. You may be few, but you are such an enormous light in his life.

The sisterhood of autism moms and special needs parents, the connection and community I have found in you is invaluable.  I know my words don’t resonate with everyone, but they might with you.  Hearing your stories of struggle and achievements that come in every shape and size has been a constant reminder to always come back to hope.

All our friends, family, and friends of the family (some of whom I haven’t seen in years), who comment, message, and share our story, you encourage, support, and lift us. When you share our story, you are helping us achieve inclusion and acceptance.

Charlie, aka Sis, you know best how to drive your brother completely bonkers, the exact buttons to push, but you also unconditionally love, include, and protect him. You aren’t afraid to get right up in his face, so he sees you, so he hears you. He feels how much you love him; I promise you.

Wilson’s Daddy, you are strong when I am weak. You always support new methods, diets, and my harebrained ideas but aren’t afraid to question when something doesn’t feel right.  You keep him happy and safe, which isn’t easy but is our greatest purpose.  You know him and you love him so well. You stand with me, to advocate for him, to fight for understanding, and you remain there through our proudest moments and in our weakest.

My sweet boy. You adore the simple things. You smell, touch, taste and intensely examine. You’ve made me slow down and pay attention, whether I wanted to or not, you need me to.  You’ve helped me find patience, and still, I pray for more every single night. You have forced me into a vulnerability like I have never known and shown me all the amazingness that follows such a leap. 

You’ve shown us how hard your world can be. Through frustration, pain, confusion, and sleep deprivation, you are still so happy in your soul. You’ve shown me this is not only possible, but also just all a part of this wildly imperfect, beautiful ride.

I am so thankful for you.

To the Mom of a Child with a Disability this Mother’s Day

I am thinking about you today.

I want you to know that everything you do matters.

When you crawl into bed at night, aching from your temples to your toes, know that you have done enough.  There may have been no progress made with toileting, feeding therapy or communication today and that is okay.

Your child is safe and so loved.

The weight of hectic schedules, parent trainings, OT, PT and visits with every other MD in-between can feel suffocating.

The research, the meltdowns, the battles over chicken nugget brands and clothing choices, all can withdraw every ounce of patience from your soul.

The smeared feces, the eloping, the pica and other behaviors you watched your friend’s toddlers outgrow.  Years later, they remain in your child.

Most days are exhausting and thankless and I want you to know that your child appreciates you, they need you, and they love you beyond measure.

You need to know that.

Your child may not be able to express this, some of you may have never even heard your child call you “Mom”.

But they know you are Mom.

Your child is so grateful for all that you do and would be lost without you. Just as you would be lost without your sweet child.

I want you to know that you are not alone.

When your patience has been depleted.

When you’ve cried behind your sunglasses at a park as you watched your child’s differences come to light. 

The loneliness you have felt from the long days spent with a child unable to read your emotions.

The difficult medical and educational decisions you struggle to make.

Know that there are so many of us with you.

We have felt the lows and celebrated the victories, too. We know the fear and the worry you wrestle with daily, and the immense pride you feel over the slightest progress.

I want you to find hope.

Today let’s bask in achievements and forget about regressions.

Even if only for one day.

Let your hope be stronger than your fears.  With so many unknowns in the future, know that it’s going to get better. 

I know this because we will grow stronger.

We will continue to learn, to advocate, to protect and make certain our children know their worth and just how very much they are loved. 

I am so thankful for this sisterhood of amazing mothers today and every day.

Have a very Happy Mother’s Day.

remember my boy

Explaining autism is hard.  Understanding the complexities inside of my sweet boy can feel like trying to catch and examine the wind.

If there is one piece of autism awareness I can leave you with this month, this would be it:

The next time you are stuck at the grocery store, irritated with the man at the front of the growing line because he keeps chatting with the clerk, think of my boy.

The man might be verbally ruminating about new soda flavors he saw on tv or explaining his frustration that the store is out of the only bread he eats. How it is very important because he eats this bread for every meal in his day.

He may also bring up the triangle-shaped crackers he saw on aisle seven. For him, this is so silly because crackers really should be square.

He’ll fumble with his money.  Something that seems so simple for many but for him, this has taken intentional practice.  He carefully counts and counts again.

He’ll often adjust his big, bulky headphones. At first, you probably thought he was listening to music, but they are there to block out the unwanted sounds, squeaky grocery carts, fluorescent lighting, beeping registers, that kind of distracting thing.

When he moans, chats to himself, and waves his arms, he is growing more uncomfortable and overwhelmed in this busy place. Moving his body and voice this way helps him stay calm.

Remember by boy.

Because one day, this will be him.  While I don’t know exactly how he will behave, I do know he will be processing a lot just to be there.

I know he will have worked hard for years to be in that line alone, and I will be so proud of him for this.

I’ve seen him work harder than most for his entire life just to participate in this world. This work began long before his autism diagnosis at three years old or before any of the accompanying anxiety, sensory-processing disorder, and obsessive-compulsive behaviors were ever put down on paper and filed away somewhere.

So please, remember this blue-eyed boy who loves pirates, music, and square crackers and whose hard work began when he was a toddler.  The 1-in-54 whose brains work differently like his, they will grow up, and their hard work will remain, too.

Remember that you do not have to see the struggle for it to be there.

As his mother, I need you to be kind and patient with him. I beg that of you.

He works so hard.

autism: the beginning

“STOP FOLLOWING US, BABY! Why doesn’t he talk? He’s a BIG BABY! AHHH!!! Run!!” 

I watched as the two older boys screamed these words into my son’s face at the otherwise-empty playground.  They couldn’t understand why a kid my son’s size wouldn’t talk or pick up the clue that they didn’t want him around, even after it was screamed into his face.

My sweet boy had recently been diagnosed with autism. He had limited verbal skills and a spirit so big and bright. He laughed as the words were screamed in his face and continued to chase the boys who wanted nothing to do with him.

The boys’ mothers were deep in conversation at a table across the park. Once or twice, they called over something along the lines of “are you being nice?” and got right back to their conversation.

I can still feel the tightness in my throat as I fought with all my being to not cry. The tears poured down from behind my sunglasses. I stood there alone, praying for the mothers to notice my special boy and intervene in some way. Occasionally, I choked up a few words to try and redirect my little man to another part of the playground.

I had no words that day.  I was fragile, still processing this new world of autism and what life ahead was going to look like for my boy. And that afternoon just broke me.

This was the beginning.

Luckily, my son did not feel the pain of exclusion that day.  I know it will not be that way forever.  He understands so much more than he can say, and he feels so deeply.

Now, I would know what to say, and I wouldn’t wait on strangers to say the right thing for me. But it sure would have helped this mother’s fragile heart if those boys had learned a little about differences, kindness, and inclusion.

April is World Autism Awareness Month.  When we advocate for autism awareness, really, what we want is kindness + inclusion. That is what really matters.

Learning about and celebrating our differences and those of others can change everything.

Always Presume Competence

-Nonspeaking does not mean a person cannot communicate, understand you, or that they don’t have feelings.

-Please drop labels like high/low functioning. Would you want to be talked about that way? Instead, you can say, “Tell me more about your child.”

– If a person is not making eye contact, or moving their body in a unique way, do not assume that they are not listening. In fact, that might be HOW they are able to focus on what you are saying. 

This was the first time I saw Wilson write his name. At the time, I didn’t know he could do it. In fact, I didn’t think he could do it.

I can’t believe how many times I have underestimated this boy.

If you think he looks proud, you should have seen me.

autism & awareness

Oh April, Autism Awareness Month.

I have mixed feelings about you.

You see, I am never unaware of autism.

When I answer the same questions 1,980,674 a day from my little boy with autism, it’s impossible to be unaware.

Or when I help him go over his schedule 630,238 times a day. My husband looks at me and says, “It’s so bad right now.” He means the OCD behaviors. That is just a bonus thing to be aware of with an autism diagnosis. Anxiety is right up there, too.

Yes, then I am very aware.

My boy with autism. Or my autistic boy. This is a very important thing.

One is a person first, after all, he is a boy who just happens to have autism. 

The other is an all-encompassing identity worn with pride. 

I wish we didn’t have to choose. Can’t it be both? I want both for him.

There is no right answer, but people will tell you otherwise each way you choose.

Maybe someday my boy will tell me his preference.

Just like someday he will answer his dad when he asks him what he did at school that day.

Every day he is met with silence and a smile. Some day.

A lot of autistic adults really want to skip the whole awareness thing and have everyone move right on into acceptance. That sounds ideal to me, but I really don’t see how one can happen without the other.

So, we talk about autism to spread awareness.

It does get a little exhausting, I will be honest.

The repetition, the hope, the advocacy on eggshells.

But I get excited, thinking about more people joining in on this awareness thing. 

I can start to see a world where communication without words is commonplace.

And maybe things like atypical eye contact wouldn’t be a thing, and maybe parents like us wouldn’t hear that word, ATYPICAL, so damn much.

In this world I see, people would understand that sensory processing is so different for everyone. It can be downright painful for some, and never given a second thought by others.

People would be better about not taking the little things in life for granted, like outings outside of the home that for some, like my boy, require navigating a battlefield of anxiety, sensory input, and communication barriers.

They’d know that nonspeakers still FEEL greatly.

There would be just enough awareness for people to be kind and patient with those who are different.

Yes, that world would be so nice.