About a year ago I attended a support group for parents of children with autism. It was in a therapy gym and we sat among mats and swings and exercise balls -- we looked like overgrown children spread across the floor trying to make ourselves as comfortable as possible. It was casual. The person running it was an Occupational Therapist who worked mostly with kids on the spectrum. The topic was somewhat general -- basically how to deal with the diagnosis.
At this point, Sean had been given his diagnosis for about three and a half years. I had come a long way, thanks to the help from some really great parents I had met who had been on similar journeys and a doctor who made us see the light and helped us come to terms with what having a child with autism really meant. Her philosophy was to treat the entire family -- we were all affected by this disorder and Sean couldn’t thrive unless we all understood why Sean did the things he did.
She reiterated what my father had said, “No child wants to feel like this. No child wants to behave like this.”
And from that point forward, we stopped taking it all so personally and started regulating ourselves in order to create peace and balance in our home.
Each parent took a turn standing up and telling his or her story, sharing what they felt comfortable sharing. We were all at different places and we all had children spread across the spectrum. No story was the same and yet similar words came out of each story: grief, sadness, fear, overwhelmed, struggle and loneliness.
There was a young mother, with light reddish hair and pale skin, her eyes rimmed with redness, tissues bunched in her hands and I couldn’t help but to watch her taking it all in. I could see that she was in a lot of pain and guessed that she was new to the diagnosis. I saw in her what I had seen in myself -- a confused and sad person who’s world was blown apart and who was overwhelmed of where to begin to pick up the pieces.
When it was her turn to talk she took a deep breath, her shoulders shook and the tears began to slide down her face. She had a three year old boy who wasn’t talking, wasn’t making eye contact, having terrible tantrums and obsessed with lining up his toy cars. She had received the diagnosis from a developmental pediatrician a month ago and although she knew something wasn’t right with her child she wasn’t prepared for the diagnosis of Autism. She was afraid. She was sad. And mostly she was lonely.
I wanted to move across the room and sit with her and tell her that she was going to make it through this. I wanted to tell her that she was going to amaze herself at what she was capable of doing and that she would surprise herself at how much she would come to completely love and adore this little boy who built so many walls around himself. I wanted to tell her that it was horrible and difficult and completely exhausting but that, in time, she would make a life for herself and for her family that would make more sense.
It’s like when you have a cut on your hand and it is tender and sore, but over time it heals and maybe leaves a small scar to remind you of how much it once hurt and how far you have come. It doesn’t go away but it doesn’t hurt like it initially did and it might not look pretty but it’s part of your history, and it tells a story of how you got where you are now standing.
I wanted to hug her and tell her that she was not alone, to look around the room and see all those who had been where she was and to see how far they had come and that they were still standing and sharing and, yes, they were sometimes laughing.
When the meeting was over, I walked over to where she was standing, a table with punch and pretzels and Chips Ahoy cookies and I smiled warmly and said, “Hi.”
She looked up, a paper cup in her hand, her eyes swollen and smiled back. I waited a beat to see if she wanted to talk -- I remembered how I felt at that point, exhausted and not ready to share everything and embarrassed to cry in front of strangers. I wasn’t sure where she was in the whole grieving process and I didn’t want to overwhelm her nor did I want to say, “It’s going to get better.”
The truth is, I didn‘t know if it would get better. It sometimes gets harder. But what I did know is that she would get better. In a few weeks, months, maybe even years she would cry less at night after tucking her child into bed, she would mourn less at the playgrounds and the school yards where the children ran freely and happily, and she would get stronger.
She had an older child, like me, who needed her and she would be there for him. She had an autistic child, who would teach her to love more freely and to find kindness and forgiveness and especially patience in the toughest moments. She would make it.
When I drove home that night, I couldn’t get her sad eyes out of my mind. I wanted to make it better and reassure her but this was her journey and nobody could do that for her but her.
I often think of those who smiled at me, touched my arm, gave me a knowing look (been there and done that) and sometimes that was enough for me to put myself back together, to give me hope that I wasn’t alone and that I could survive this. I sometimes wonder where I would be if it were not for the kindness of those who took the briefest moments out of their busy lives to notice me, struggling and disheartened, and to quietly give me some small gesture to know that I would be okay.
9 months ago