Today is the last day of Autism Awareness Month. While I try to share my experiences of dealing with Autism in my family often – to foster meaningful conversation, point to resources and work to lessen stigma – it seems more than appropriate to amplify that sharing now. One of the things I noticed at the top of this month, was that on World Autism Awareness Day, April 2nd, I saw several badges, stickers, selfies and family portraits all supporting children of friends and colleagues that I had no idea were impacted by Autism like my family is. Now, I grew up in a house that had defined rules about “family business”. And as a brand strategist, I understand why someone may not want to “put all their business in the street” (insert whatever your Mom called it in your house here). However, as someone intent on being authentic – and who is understanding the power of transparency and vulnerability more every day – I can’t help but wonder if any part of that may be due to fear.
Now I’m not saying anyone with a child on the Autism spectrum like mine, should feel the need to post a picture with the caption “Meet Junior – He has Autism”. No one who has friended or followed you anywhere is owed that. At the same time, if you feel compelled to share that picture, I am saying that I want to be a part of fostering a culture – online and in real life – that creates safe enough spaces for people to feel they can share. . . that or whatever else they need to get advice, feel support or to just be reminded that they (we) are not in this alone.
Here’s how I – and anyone – can help to create that safe environment:
- Be Real – I mentioned authenticity above on purpose. In my personal experience dealing with taboo social issues like emotional abuse (dude from college, not my loving husband), infant loss and parenting an Autistic child – what’s real is what helps heal. Those who have lived through something similar and are daring enough to share that with you, while being cautious not to generalize your experience in comparison to theirs, they can begin to break through before others – try as they might – are able to.
- Just Listen – This is where anyone can lend a hand. Whether or not you can relate to someone’s tough experience, you can offer an ear. Try not to judge, or to interrupt unless you are preventing a negative spiral. Express your gratitude for the person opening up to you and reassure them that you are there to listen if they want to share more in the future. If you don’t know what to say, say that. It helps to say you’ll help work through feelings or possible solutions if they’d like and if you’re comfortable doing so. If not, know that your open-hearted listening does help.
- Help or Hush – This is particularly useful for online spaces and conversations. Too often, we use comments to point out where someone made what we perceive as a mistake and walk away. Not realizing that we may have only a piece of the story (Yes, even if it’s a long Facebook post we are commenting on), and not offering any help or possible solutions. I try to practice solutions oriented offering. If I can’t help, I stay out of it. Help can be encouragement (“keep going”), empathy (“I’ve been there too”), resources (“this place can help”) or some combination of these options. There is little to be gained from my criticizing someone who is already dealing with a trying situation. Plus, that’s not the kind of energy I want to generate, spread or receive.
When I first visited my youngest son’s school, I was heart broken. I’d showed up, all excited, to have lunch with him and his classmates in his cafeteria. He barely glanced my way, did not verbally acknowledge me at all and only sat by me while my phone was playing “Baby Shark”. It was not what I’d expected – which was probably my first mistake. I thought visiting his school, going on field trips or similar activities might never be like they are with my older son, or other kids, or like I’d imagined. I thought only of myself. I never stopped to realize that being at school everyday, away from his home, his things and his family is probably a lot to handle for any three year old -particularly one on the spectrum. He likely put coping mechanisms in place to get through the day without his usual comforts. Then I showed up, expecting a parade. Not thinking that he might need time to process his Mommy from home being in his cafeteria at school.
Recently, I went on his third field trip with him and his class. I’ve been on all of them, thankfully (I say that because I recognize it’s a privilege not every parent gets), and my little guy has been doing so well. I’m proud of him! I showed up to his class and was greeted with an excited “Hi Mommy!”. We rode the bus together and had a great time at Chuck E. Cheese with the other special education department students, parents & teachers celebrating Autism Awareness Day. I couldn’t help but be moved by the difference I see in my son. He’s independent, even in brand new situations with lots of stimuli. He adjusted quickly, interacted with classmates and honestly had a great time. It’s so much further along than I thought we’d be when I walked into his cafeteria that day at the beginning of the school year. And that is why I share. I share because this journey is difficult, but doable. I share because I want others to feel they can as well. I share because I’m grateful that God blesses my family through this journey we are on, ad not despite it. And I hope that anyone with a notably different, though obviously gifted, wonderful Autistic kid like mine can be encouraged by that story. And I hope that more parents will share their kids’ stories, not only in the beginning April but all year long.
Tip: We look for learning opportunities everywhere! ⬇️