I have been writing and sharing my stories of parenting my children with autism for a little while now. As a mother of four children, three of whom have autism spectrum disorders, I live the range of the spectrum in my home every day and writing has been an important part of my journey. I write so that other parents know they are not alone, to share hope, and to help others understand what parents of children with special needs experience. Most importantly, I write to spread autism awareness and acceptance. Maybe if someone reads one of my stories and it touches their heart, they will have greater compassion for a mother with a child struggling to cope at the park. Or maybe when one of our grown children sits with them in a job interview, they will look past his not so great eye contact and focus instead on his impressive portfolio and give him a chance.
Up to now my experiences of writing have been really positive. That was until earlier this week. With growing exposure comes growing opinions, I guess. I wrote a story about my oldest son returning to Boy Scouts after a not so successful attempt at Cub Scouts years ago. It spoke of hope and possibility by describing his progress over the years. It also spoke of the emotional challenge that it has been for me as a mother. I shared that after having to fight for him and help him in so many ways over the years, that it can be hard to let him be more independent, to take a step back and let go. I conversely acknowledged that in actuality, the opportunity to let him handle things on his own is a beautiful gift, one that for many years I thought I would never get. One that many autism parents don't get.
Here are just a few of the responses I received:
"Okay we get it, your child is yet another special snowflake."
"Stop making such a big deal of your child's autism. It's only a big deal because you make it one -- get over it." (From a teacher, by the way.)
"The problem with autism is that we are making a bigger deal out of it than we need to."
"Helicopter mother. She's the one who needs help more than her son."
"Great. Yet another kid who got a label because his parents don't know to parent."
"Well, if it isn't autism it's another disability du jour."
"Please stop asking for your child to be taught like others...THEY CAN'T. Whatever caused this problem, it's you who must face his limits."
"What about the other children? Do they not deserve the full benefit of the camping trip? He may have come a long way but autism is not curable."
"Another kid with problems that was mainstreamed in public schools at the expense of his classmates and teachers."
Initially the words stung me personally. Then my heart broke for my children because I know that some people feel this way. But in time I realized that what truly infuriated me about the situation was not just the personal attack -- but the ignorance and lack of tolerance.
I could defend each insult line by line, for example, if my child has autism because I'm such a horrible mother, then why don't all my children have it? Or that on one hand I'm making too big of a deal of my child's struggles, but on the other hand, you don't want him in your child's classroom? But doing so just makes me angrier, and I refuse to let others' small minded ideas take away my peace of mind.
So instead, my hope is to forge ahead with my writing and continue to hope that I can help people appreciate the wonderful things that those with autism have to offer. I also want people to recognize the benefits of increasing curiosity and acceptance towards others. If we keep in mind the problems occurring in the world and in our country these days, this week in particular, how can anyone not see that learning tolerance and understanding might be the most important education your child receives?
MCAS, baccalaureate degrees, trophies, shiny medals... They are a part of life, but are not the key to anyone's happiness or the answer to creating a peaceful heart or a peaceful world. Happiness and peace come from virtues like kindness, gratitude, wonder, curiosity, human connection, and compassion just to name a few. If anyone thinks their child can learn those from a textbook, they are wrong. The things that children can learn from sharing a classroom with differently abled peers can be true life lessons.
What an amazing future we could be creating if we taught our children to appreciate and value every person for who they are. If we taught them that EVERY person you meet has a gift to share, or something you can learn from them. Very often beautiful people are created from adversity. Some of these challenges people are simply born with -- a different color of skin, a different sexual orientation, a disability, or just a plain difference. Some of the battles are just the stuff of life -- abuse, addiction, illness, poverty, or just plain old mistakes. If you don't think that these groups of people have a wealth of things to teach you, well, you my friend are absent from the most important classroom of all. The classroom of life.
Tolerance and understanding are not just about what politically correct declarations we make at cocktail parties or as our social media personas. It is not just "liking" videos of children with autism getting to shoot the last point at a basketball game. It is not just wearing a ribbon or a certain color on a certain day. It is about LIVING every day with kindness and acceptance in your heart and teaching your children to do the same. It is standing up for others when you see that not occurring. It is about withholding judgement and taking the opportunity to listen and truly hear a person's story and point of view.
People with autism can be your friend, your boyfriend, or your wife. They are loving, kind, and considerate of others. They are not violent or unintelligent. They quite frequently have superpowers that the world would not be the same without. They amaze in the arts, science, computers, and business because they have a unique view of the world that we all could benefit from. And even when they are not able to communicate with you by using words, their spirits and their hearts have volumes to say.
Autism is not caused by bad parenting. In fact, autism parents have to work much harder to help their children achieve milestones other parents take for granted. They are actually a wealth of information because they have tried so many innovative ways to help their child. Having a hard time with potty training? Ask an autism mommy for help! She'll have 20 different ideas you haven't tried. They need your support, not your criticism as it can be a difficult and lonely road. When you judge an autism parent, you are helping to confirm any beliefs they have that the world will not be kind to their child. You are encouraging them to isolate, which is the exact opposite of what they and their child need.
All of our lives are hectic and we're all doing the best we can each day often with challenging circumstances. Let's all try to be less judgmental and more understanding. It's not always easy, I'm a work in progress myself. But let's try to encourage each other as parents instead of cutting each other down. Let's teach our children to do the same. Encourage your child to make friends with all kinds of children. The definition of friends doesn't have to be "someone who is just like you." Friendships with people who are different from us can be some of the most rewarding relationships we have.
I didn't always know that it was better to live this way. But then some people taught me.
My children with autism.