THE BLOG

The Upside of Autism

03/01/2013 05:53 pm ET | Updated May 01, 2013

People often talk about the difficulties associated with parenting a child with autism. I'm grateful they do, because it really can send a parent to the edge. But this post isn't about that. I want to recognize and celebrate the upside of autism, a blessing we "special needs parents" are given somewhere, somehow -- packaged up in a huge gift I like to call "perspective."

Hundreds, if not thousands, of parents in my community get their kids up on Saturday mornings and feed them a quick breakfast before heading off to soccer. They brave the chilly winds of the 8 a.m. game, juggle multiple kids' schedules and sit in the hot California sun for the afternoon games. They cheer the kids on as they sip their coffee in their portable chairs, all too aware that this is just one in a series of Saturdays they'd hand over to AYSO.

But I'm willing to bet most of those parents take it all for granted.

There was one recent Saturday I realized how different I am from the rest of those parents. From afar, my day probably looked very similar. I, too, woke up earlier than I prefer on a Saturday morning to get one kid to the field 30 minutes before the first game (seriously, 7:30 a.m.?). I whooped from the sidelines and served up an extra dose of encouragement when my son suffered a sizable defeat to the other team, appropriately named "The Sharks." When it was over, we went home to do some chores, give the kids a little downtime and feed them lunch before packing it all back up for the afternoon game.

It was that 1:00 p.m. game that clearly separated my husband and me from many of the parents at the field. For our older son, officially diagnosed with autism at almost 6 years old, it was the first time he had ever suited up for soccer, and years since we had even tried a team sport.

My nervous energy was palpable: my incessant pre-game pep talk, the way I paced back and forth before the game... I was practically jumping out of my skin with anxiety (and a little excitement) over how it would all go down.

Fortunately, my son's coach is no stranger to special needs and has empowered us to communicate throughout the game what works for Jacob and how he can help. We were all on the same page. If he gets overwhelmed, a sub will be called in. If he loses steam, he can sit down. We were grateful for the accommodations but I couldn't help but hope with every ounce of my being we wouldn't need to use any of them.

Learning a few tricks over the years, we did our best to set Jacob up for success. A little water in his hair to help keep him from becoming overheated (a common trigger) and keeping the focus on one seven-minute period at a time seemed to make things more manageable. Removing myself from the equation, letting his coach (with some help from my husband) take the lead also proved to be a good decision. Because for the next hour, our little man played -- and he played hard. He ran and kicked and ran some more. The glow radiating from the smile on his face rivaled that of the hot sun. He was part of a team, and he belonged to something bigger than himself. You couldn't miss the pride he felt -- he carried it in every step, in every kick.

Then he was knocked down.

I thought I heard my husband gasp and hold his breath, only to discover it was actually me. Because where another child might get up, shake it off and keep going, one of the most stressful challenges for us is finding the ability to persevere when faced with a challenge, not letting a small setback become a huge issue.

For a second there, I could feel the earth screech to a halt. It was as if time stood still while our son lied on the grass. Would he recover? Would this be the very thing to sideline him and squash his enthusiasm for the rest of the season? Come on, come on, come on, please, please, please, please, my mind begged while my mouth stayed quiet. Things were going so well, please don't let this be it.

What felt like an eternity was actually about three seconds. Jacob popped up and was back on his feet in no time. As he recovered, I could see that question in his face, "Should I give up?" I don't know what happened during his inner conversation, but I know who won -- the side that told him to keep on keepin' on.

Jacob played four seven-minute periods that day, only sitting out a couple of times (just like the rest of the team). While they took a pretty big beating (just ask a kid with autism to not keep score), seeing my son leap out of his comfort zone and give it all he's got on the soccer field was a huge win for Jacob, and for our entire family. And you know what? I wouldn't trade it for the world. Because right along with the struggles, it's those typical no-big-deal moments other families often take for granted that feel like huge, tear-inducing, heart-swelling victories for us. And it's those victories that make life all that much sweeter.