If I Could Grant Three Wishes for My Autistic Child

When I we were expecting Baby No. 2 and I found out that she was a girl, I was so excited. I already had a son and a stepson, so I was well outnumbered. I dreamed that my daughter would become my best friend. I pictured us doing mommy-daughter things together: shopping, pampering, afternoon tea, girly days out and heart-to-hearts about friends, boyfriends and life. I dreamed of a wedding, grandchildren…

And then we learned she is autistic, and all those hopes and dreams felt as though they were slipping away like grains of sand through my fingers.

Suddenly, the future for our daughter was unclear, blurry, foggy. Dark. We had no idea what she would and wouldn’t be capable of, and what life would have in store for her.

I was blinded by the diagnosis. What I had failed to realise, in those very early days, was that I could still have hopes and dreams for her, and for us, but they would just be different than the wishes I had before. These are my wishes.

Wish #1: I wish for her to be educated in a way that means she can get the most out of her school days. I no longer dream of her going to university or having a great career (although either could definitely still happen!). I don’t mind so much about academics, although I would love for her to read and write (even if that means “writing” with an iPad instead of a pen).

I really want her to learn the things that mainstream schools do not focus on as much. I want her to learn social skills—she needs to be taught, rather than just picking skills up through interaction and experience. I want her to learn about the world—not geography, but her world—and how to live in it. I want her to learn independence so that, one day, she might be capable of living away from us.

Wish #2: I wish that she has friends and leads a happy life. She is already popular at Nursery, with other children keen to talk and play with her, but she isn’t yet able to respond to their interest. I hope that, in time, she will be able to form meaningful friendships with people who “get” her. Maybe she’ll even find love.

As long as she’s happy, I’ll be happy. I don’t want her life to be a struggle, and I hope that we can arm her with the ability and vocabulary to express to us if it does become difficult, so that we can help.

Wish #3: I wish for her to be accepted. Society, while making great strides in recognising the needs of autistic people, still has a long, long way to go until being autistic is no big differentiator. I hope that by the time my daughter is an adult, being autistic isn’t even a “thing”—it’s just another way of being.

I hope that the accommodations some businesses and places make now are commonplace all over and that everyone working in a public-facing role has at least basic-level autism awareness training. I would hope that this knowledge and understanding would spread so that everyone knows more about autism, and our autistic loved ones are treated with the kindness, respect and care that they deserve.

I don’t think these wishes are unrealistic or unachievable. And, who knows? She may end up married and with a family and a fantastic career of her own one day. But, whatever happens, I do know that she will be my best friend and I will do everything in my power to make sure she’s happy.

Instead of the blurry, dark future I feared when she was first diagnosed, I have come to realise that she is the light, and her future is bright.

Autism and Behavior: Am I Making Allowances or Excuses?

Harry was born with a very rare craniofacial condition and so, right from the beginning, we knew life would be different for us—both from the one we had imagined and from the lives of our friends.

As Harry is a twin, it was natural for us to compare his development with his brother Oliver’s. However, unlike a lot of parents, it wasn’t the delay that we noticed first.

Harry taught himself his letters and numbers way before Oliver, thanks to his electronic phonics and numbers boards. Although he couldn’t tell you, he would always choose the right answer when you asked him to select a letter or digit. He was fab. He also taught himself how to play the piano from around age 2 1/2. Of course, we know now that the familiar and ever consistent sound made by the same note means that Harry’s autistic mind hears a predictable pattern, whereas Oliver only heard noise. I was so proud!

In time, we came to see the typical signs that would lead us down the road to assessment. Harry rocked and flapped constantly, wouldn’t interact with other children at all, and was obsessive about certain items or toys. He had high scores in each area of the “triad of impairment” and at just age 4, he had his diagnosis of autism.

The diagnosis itself didn’t change anything for us as Harry had already just started at special educational provision, but it did mean that we were more aware of his behaviour and reactions and tried to explain them within the context of his new diagnosis.

Over the past 11 years, Harry has endured some huge operations to correct the shape and formation of his skull and palate. It’s impossible not to make allowances for his negative reactions to the doctors and hospitals, which he has feared, but something struck me lately when I noticed a change in him.

When telling Harry that he was going to the hospital, he used to get extremely upset and nervous. Now, he laughs and replies with “Yay! Vtech toy!” Why? Because we have positively reinforced his experience with a trip to a local toy store after each operation and procedure. We justified it as his treat for being so brave, and although it’s true that he was incredibly brave, we ended up creating another expectation and habit that is now very hard to break.

How many of his quirky autistic habits have been unwittingly created by us? And how much of his behaviour do I make allowances for by explaining it as part of his diagnosis? Here are a few examples to consider:

Harry has phases where he bakes his toys in the oven when I’m not looking.

My explanation: It’s because he’s seen me cooking or has been doing cookery at school and is taking an interest in it himself.

Another possibility: He remembers my scream from the first time and just finds it incredibly entertaining to wind me up.

Harry has started to kick out at the dog for no reason and without warning.

My explanation: He doesn’t like how unpredictable the dog is and he doesn’t like the texture of his fur, so he feels scared when the dog’s around.

Another possibility: He simply doesn’t like the dog!

He has a meltdown.

My explanation: He could be in pain, overtired or experiencing sensory overload where we are at that time.

Another possibility: He’s tired and grumpy and unable to tell me why. He’s had enough of being there or doing what we are doing and wants to go home.

He lashes out at Oliver and hits or punches him sometimes.

My explanation: He’s trying to interact and loves Oliver the most, so he focuses on him sometimes.

Another possibility: He’s just having a moment where he’s feeling particularly mean and is taking it out on his brother (like I did as a child with mine and many other siblings do).

I’m not trying to trivialise these aspects of autism at all, as they are significant challenges for our children and us as parents. But I’m just thinking out loud and I feel that I have as much a responsibility to question my own responses as I do to consider Harry’s actions.

Isn’t it just as feasible that, as well as expressing himself within the restrictions of non-verbal autism, he’s just playing up like any neurotypical child? Where does the autism stop and the child begin? It’s impossible to know.

But when I see him, even in the moments that exhaust and frustrate me, I’m also in awe of him. Of the uncomplicated way he views the world; the way he does what he wants when he wants and is free from how he “should” be feeling or acting; the unconditional love that he gives so beautifully.

So, whether they’re excuses or allowances, I have to wonder: Does it matter? Am I beating myself up and overthinking (just two of my strongest traits) unnecessarily?

Yes, maybe I do make excuses for him when I should be punishing him (that’s not to say I don’t tell him off because I do—he needs to know right from wrong). But I also make allowances for his frustrations and confusion because there are times when, without a doubt, he is responding through his autism. And let’s face it, most of the time I am too busy laughing at his crafty tricks and funny acts to wonder why he’s doing them.

Autism life is fast-paced, full of questions, and peppered with responsibility and big decisions, but never, ever is it dull. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

On the Days That I Break

I hear him. I can hear him limping around his room. I can hear him cough. I can hear him randomly shouting words—words he once had, words that mean nothing now.

I check his bedroom camera. I zoom in to see if he can wait the five minutes I need to coax my body into waking up. My back is stiff and sore. My neck creaks.

I am 36, so I am pretty sure I am too young to be feeling so stiff and sore in the morning.

My mind tells my body to get up.

My body refuses.

Today is already one of those days.

The days when I just can’t. The days when it takes so much to stop myself from breaking. I know these days well; I have them often.

I know today will be a day that I will break; a day that I will spend counting down the hours until bedtime.

It’s a horrible feeling. It’s a feeling wrapped in heavy guilt.

My child is terminally ill and I have days when I just can’t do it.

Society tells me to relish every minute with my son, for I know what his future holds. I tell myself the same, but some days it’s hard. It’s hard to take the slaps, punches, pinches and kicks, and still find something to be grateful for.

I know I will feel a huge amount of guilt over feeling this way, especially when I can’t hear him or see him or hold him anymore. I remind myself of this and that is the reason I get up: Guilt is powerful.

Just managing to get by isn’t easy or something any parent wants to do when it comes to their kids. But on the days that I break, it’s all I can do. I push the guilt away and remind myself that I am human.

I get up. I go into his room and I clean him and everything else that requires cleaning. He’s happy to see me, but not for long. He doesn’t like to be cleaned, and the wipes, the cream, are all too alien to him despite us having used them for years now.

I get it done and we begin our day.

He is out of routine.

He expects a bus to come get him, but I know that bus isn’t coming for another three weeks. He doesn’t know or understand this.

I watch the clock as I feed him and medicate him.

He lashes out as I clean his peg site. I don’t dodge the slap in time, which means I have a fresh scrape on my face. More explaining to do when I meet friends or family, and even strangers some days.

Once, a woman very kindly handed me a card when my husband wasn’t looking. It was for an abused women’s home. She presumed my husband was behind my black eye and scraped face. My husband is a big man who is used to getting the evil eye from random strangers when my face cannot be hidden behind makeup.

Some days I break.

I want to run away and not come back. I don’t want to do all the caring. I want to stay in bed and pretend my life is just like yours.

People tell me that at least I don’t have the future worry of what will happen to Ethan once I am gone. They are right—I don’t have that worry.

I worry about what will happen to us when my son is no longer here. How will that feel? Will I be able to look at myself in the mirror then, knowing that there were days when I wanted to run away from everything, including him?

For me, autism is very different from the shows we see on TV. For me, disabilities are very different from the shows we see on TV.

Our life with Autism is violent.

Our life with disability is heartbreakingly painful, as we watch our son lose each and every skill he ever had.

So, yes, I have days when I break. Days when the world I live in is too much for me. Days when I want to run. Days when I wish for a different life and days when I am angry at the life I have.

Am I ungrateful? I don’t know.

Are there worse situations out there? I am sure there are, but that doesn’t make my situation any easier.

I think society puts us parents on a pedestal by saying things like “I couldn’t do it” or “I don’t know how you do it.” The truth of it is, as well-intentioned as those types of comments are, they often make me personally feel like I am not doing it. Because there are days when I break, days when I just can’t, and days when the only thing that gets me up is guilt.

I think that the only way parents like me can change this view is to be honest, be open, and admit there are days when we just break.

And it’s OK.

It’s OK to feel like running away.

And it is OK to tell society the harsh truth about being a parent to a child with a life-limiting condition or autism or Down syndrome or any other disabilities or challenges.

Three Things I Am Tired of Explaining About Autism

Not again, I thought to myself. 

Did they just really ask me this? Here I go again, I said to myself with a plastered smile on my face, trying to hide how cranky their comments made me. I know exactly why they ask such questions or say the kind of comments that they do. It’s simply because they can’t understand my child’s behavior and why we do the things that we do.

Being an advocate can be very monotonous. At times, I feel like I explain the same things repeatedly. And even after I go into great detail, I get the same baffled looks. It leaves me exhausted, irritated, stressed and angry. It’s exhausting having to repeatedly explain your child to people. I often leave a situation all calm and collected, and then release my built-up frustrations later. After all, a person can only explain something so many times without getting a little grumpy.

Are you wondering what I get asked about my son’s behaviors? My list is somewhat lengthy, but here are the top three things that I am tired of explaining.

1. Every child with autism is different.

There is not one family who has the same journey. So, please stop making comparisons among children with autism. I often find myself in a conversation and the person will say something like, “Well, I knew a woman who had a nephew with autism and he just started talking when he was four. So, your son will too.” Or something like, “A kid who has autism and lives across the street from me was put on a special diet by his parents and now he is just fine. I bet if you try that, Trenton will be too.”

UGH! Nothing can be more frustrating than trying to explain to people that what works for one child/adult with autism will not necessarily work for everyone. When I explain that I tried what they just mentioned and it didn’t help my son, I get the most confused/blank look back.

“How can that be?”

“It’s just autism,” I say, and I leave it at that.

Inside, I am screaming and angry and feel judged. I often feel like they don’t believe me when I say that I have tried and done almost everything, but my son isn’t like the person they know. It’s autism, folks! No one is the same and not one story is the same!

2. Yes, he does look ‘normal.’ Looks aren’t everything.

I know, I know! I hear this one a lot. My child is handsome and adorable, and has the cutest smile in the world. Therefore, he looks “normal” to strangers—it appears that there is absolutely nothing different about him. However, don’t let his looks dictate to you whether he has challenges.

He has many mountains to climb daily, and always will. My life has been forever changed because of his challenges. He may look like the boy next door, but we definitely walk to the beat of our own drum in this house, and we always will.

3. He’s got sensory issues.

Trying to explain the sensory problems that accompany my son’s autism is one of the hardest things to do. “Oh, your son can’t brush his teeth? But, why?” People look at me, expressionless, trying to grasp how a child who looks “normal” can’t brush his teeth because of sensory problems. I always go further, too, explaining that nail trimming and haircuts are impossible unless my son is asleep or held down. The look on their faces when they hear that is priceless!

It is hard to manage not only these types of conversations about autism, but many others as well. I do my best to get through them pleasantly while I am dying a little on the inside. Just when I think that I won’t have to engage in another tedious conversation explaining my son to someone, I find myself right back in the same exact conversation, but with a different person. It’s exhausting.

An Autism Mom’s Feelings About Grief

“You can’t stop the tide.”

I told my autistic son this during his first trip to the ocean. The vastness of the water frightened him and so, in his own way, he sought to control it by holding out his little hands and bravely shouting at the waves to stop. We’ve all been there, struggling to get our footing when the riptide moments of life threaten to pull us under.

Never is this truer than when someone you love is dying. This summer, my family is preparing to say goodbye to my father-in-law, the kindest and most hardworking man I’ve ever known. Over the last few days I’ve worried about and watched my sweet boy struggle once more to stop the tide. Except this time it’s the vastness of his emotions that frightens him.

People with autism are so often portrayed as lacking emotions. But my boy is often flooded with them, to the point that he nearly drowns. When this happens I wade through the murky depths of his feelings and try to help him stay afloat. This isn’t easy these days since half the time I feel like I’m drowning, too.

Grieving with a special needs child, like anything else, seems so much harder. The meltdowns, the overstimulation, and the judgmental stares of strangers heighten the moment. Add to that the common struggle of helping your child make sense of something that you yourself don’t understand. I wish I could impart some kind of wisdom to other parents out there that, like me, are treading water in the sea of grief, but I sadly don’t have any answers.

Instead, I want you to know you’re not alone. In the chaos it’s easy to feel isolated. All the things that make your child’s day easier—staying on schedule, eating healthy meals, and having a routine—are nearly impossible in these situations. It’s easy to panic and flail as you frantically try and get some semblance of control over your universe.

It’s OK if you stumble and fall along the way. Saying goodbye is hard and it should be. But it’s important to remember that when you struggle for control, you risk drowning. It’s only when you lay back, trust the water, and float that the tide brings you safely back to shore.

Moms Who Inspire