My husband and I walked out of the pediatrician’s office, hand in hand with our then 2-year-old son and buckled him into his car seat. It was then, and only then, I started to cry.
“Autism? Really? Is he kidding me?” I whispered to my husband so our son couldn’t hear.
At that point, I was so confused as to what he could and could not comprehend, I didn’t want him to think he had done something wrong.
“Let’s take it easy and see where this leads,” my calm and total-opposite-of-me husband replied.
I texted my father. “They think he has autism.”
“No way. That boy is brilliant and loving. Go to a new doctor,” he wrote back.
Deep down, in my gut, I knew that something was wrong. Deep down, in my gut, I knew the doctor’s diagnosis was right.
My son has autism.
But what does this mean? How do we deal with this as parents? How will this change our life? How will this change his life?
There had been glaringly obvious signs he may be on the autism spectrum — signs that I’d chosen to ignore because, well, my son is perfect. Autism was something other kids had, not mine.
He refused to eat or drink anything other than his formula, which, as any parent knows, by the age of 2 shouldn’t really be a part of their diet anymore.
He refused to stay with anyone other than my husband, myself, or my father.
He would get panicky and scream and hit his chest over and over again for what seemed like no reason.
He would line up all his toys in a certain order and all HELL would break loose if one of those toys was accidentally moved or, in the case of his tiny cars, rolled away.
He wouldn’t wear certain clothing. He wouldn’t respond to his name. He wouldn’t speak words other than a few random syllables that made no sense.
And going to restaurants or stores? Good luck, pal. That wasn’t happening. His anxiety would quickly reach a peak where his screams became so excruciatingly loud we were afraid other patrons would think we kidnapped our own son.
My husband had an easier time accepting this new factor in our life than I did. Or at least he made it seem that way, probably for my sake.
Like other little girls, when I’d imagined my adult life, I pictured a huge house, two or three kids, a dog, date nights, sleepovers and birthday parties.
It wasn’t until his fourth birthday that my son allowed us to sing “Happy Birthday” to him without him going into a fit. And even now, as we approach his sixth birthday, we still hesitate. Will he be OK with it? We can’t even get him a birthday cake because he won’t eat it.
For a long time, I felt bitter.
I wasn’t bitter toward my son because as someone who suffers from a list of mental illnesses longer than your grocery list, I was empathetic to his needs and his frustrations, lack of communication being one, but I was bitter because this wasn’t supposed to be my life.
Do you know what it feels like to not have anyone in the world to watch your child so you can go to an important doctor’s appointment?
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Do you know what it feels like to constantly fear that your child will be bullied because s/he is different?
Do you know what it’s like to have so much anxiety over getting your child’s hair cut because you know it’ll be a traumatic experience?
Do you know what it feels like to not have ANY alone time with your partner because your child sleeps in your bed?
I hear your responses.
“You can’t let your child control your life.”
“You’re spoiling this child and now we’re going to have to deal with his cranky ass when he gets older.”
You might not like what I’m about to say, but you’re wrong. As the parent of a child on the spectrum, you learn to pick and choose your battles wisely. And these battles look different from one autistic child to another. It’s not like, “If you’ve seen one kid with autism, you’ve seen them all!” It’s actually quite the opposite, which is why they call it a spectrum.
It wasn’t until recently that I learned to accept my life for what it is.
After reading the new book, Radical Acceptance: The Secret to Happy, Lasting Love, by YourTango’s CEO Andrea Miller, my whole line of thinking shifted.
Here’s how she explains the concept of radical acceptance …
Imagine looking at your significant other, your mother or your child and saying, “I love you right here, right now. I have your back, no matter what. I know your flaws, failures, and shortcomings — and I still love you. I will not resent or resist them. Instead, I will extend tenderness to them.”
And the secret benefit of offering that kind of empathy to someone else is that, unconsciously, you also start extending it to yourself.
As you keep practicing radical acceptance, to quote Andrea, “Your perceptions shift and you are more readily able to quit sweating the small stuff; to let go of your tendency to control, blame and be defensive; and to extend more empathy and compassion to yourself. You will be more loving and confident. Love and abundance beget further love and abundance.”
I know life isn’t going to dramatically change tomorrow. There’s nothing I can do BUT to accept wholeheartedly and unconditionally the life that our little family leads.
In fact, I find myself appreciating my son’s milestones even more now.
When I offer him a bite to eat (which I know he’ll refuse), instead of screaming in fear, he simply says, “No, thank you.”
After I sneeze (which happens a lot, I have allergies), he runs into whatever room I’m in with a HUGE smile and says, “BLESS YOU, MOMMY!”
A year or two ago, I may have seen those tiny steps and wondered why we weren’t further along. But everything is OK. The love I have for my son has never once been diminished. It has only grown with each day.
Now, I accept any improvement with love, happiness, and complete and total radical acceptance.
You might say, “Well, you have no choice but to do that.” But I do.
I have the choice to leave my family, which I’ve seen happen in similar situations. I have the choice to not do everything in my power to give my son the life he deserves. But my husband and I work daily to make sure he has above and beyond what he needs to thrive.
No, I’m not virtue signaling, because believe it or not, most days I feel like I can do better.
However, because of my new outlook, and thanks to the practice of radical acceptance, I now see my life in a different light; one that’s not so dark and gloomy, but one full of sunshine and happiness and laughs.
And maybe a piece of birthday cake for Mom. *wink*