Now I know first hand what it’s like to feel dark inside — when my child is disorganized and appears to be in pain and cannot tell me. These are the toughest moments when a parent feels helpless. Also frustrating are schools that claim they are there to support autistic children but will not take “non verbal” autistic children. Believe me, the conditions out there in order to participate in society are just plain ridiculous and prohibitive, so I’m going to make a strong plea to everyone — INCLUSION IS NECESSARY. Stop pretending to be inclusive to autistic children if they have to “talk and walk” at the same time. It’s not autism-friendly! Argh.
Yet when I am feeling depleted, I fight it and I will urge every single one of you to do it too. For each one of us has that power, if we can be aware and monitor what’s happening to us inside. It’s important to remain honest with ourselves and then be able to step back from those feelings that can suck us down.
I reach out for help. I call people. I call Adam’s aides and therapists for help when I’m feeling overwhelmed. This is a good place to start. Always call for help and bring in only those who support you and your child in the manner that you need. Do not bring people in who will put you down, make you feel lower or try to fix your child. The most important thing you and your child need are love and respect.
One thing I know FOR SURE, is that there comes a time in life when we really do have to muster every bit of strength we have and resist the calls of the demons. The echoes of The Autism Everyday video and “wanting to drive over the George Washington bridge is like a siren call and this is why this kind of marketing — the kind that exploits and capitalizes on people’s pain — should be illegal in my opinion. It’s not that I disrespect Allison Tepper Singer for her genuine feelings that might be expressed cautiously in a book or another venue. It’s about how those feelings were exploited for capital gain: make autism desperate enough and we can raise money to cure it. Well, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I believe this kind of marketing (consider type of presentation, method of delivery etc.,) is more harmful to parents than ever.
People shouldn’t have to stifle their feelings — that doesn’t help and can an adverse effect. I’ve read Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and it’s all about wanting to die. Beautiful work exists because of honesty and by sharing honest feelings we do not feel alone. There are expressions of hopelessness everywhere — and some quite well-written in fact. Yet these can be used to empower and can also be used as cautionary tales. It’s the latter cautionary tale I wish to dwell upon. People must reach out in a world where literature on loneliness prevails. In this past weekend alone, I’ve found one book on Lonely by Emily White (it destigmatizes loneliness and it is an interesting read) and two articles on loneliness and depression (The New Yorker and a review of White’s book in Saturday’s Globe & Mail). It feels as if we live in a technologically hooked-up world that seems, in fact, to be coming socially undone.
This morning I find the following story on the murder of an autistic child (see below) which is why Autism Acceptance is so vitally, URGENTLY important — not just for parents but for society at large. Society must begin to realize the incredible challenges that families with autistic kids have when they are NOT included and accepted. If we are a community, then EVERYONE IS RESPONSIBLE. I take the story of Gigi (excerpted below…almost there) very seriously. It shows that no amount of money can fix anything. Better spent, is money accommodating autistic children and making sure every child gets a fair shot at being included and educated. If I have one dream, it would for The Autism Acceptance Project to raise more money to advocate more strongly that acceptance is a social responsibility, and to make a place where autistic kids can be fully accepted and receive an amazing education.
My former neighbour Mike Lipkin is motivational speaker extraordinaire and author of several books, one called Strong Mind, Strong Heart, co-written with Dr. Bernard Levinson. I’m very good friends with his exceptional wife and herself an inspiration, Hilary. Re-reading some of his chapters after a very challenging couple of weeks with Adam reminded me how certain thoughts are defeating. Mike reminds us:
“Are you worried about your children’s future? Are you unsure whether you’re on the high road or the low road? Have you noticed that everyone you talk to has a different idea of where you should be going? Are you slightly confused? Are you a little exhausted by having to make so many decisions all of the time? Are you being bombarded by massive change? Is your brain frying?” (p.88)
I think that many parents can say yes to all of these questions. We worry what will become of our children and where they’ll end up.
We want our kids to go to school, to have places to be social and be accepted there too. With so much negative information getting into our brains from the media or from individuals who believe that an autistic person is only better once they are cured, there are real dangers that lie ahead. By reading Gigi’s story (still coming, I promise) it was clear that she was overwhelmed with trying “fix the problem.” When one discovers that autism cannot be fixed or changed, but perhaps begins to appreciate that while there are challenges, there are many advantages, life begins to look a little less desperate. I urge everyone to consider the list of what an autistic child contributes to the family instead of what s/he takes away. While the rhythm of life certainly changes, it is only those who can adapt and learn to walk to the beat of the new drum who will find joy in life. An autistic child demands that we learn to go with the flow.
Mike Lipkin talks about this a bit, albeit not about autism specifically. He talks about how life “will hit you hard like hail from the sky.” (p. 79) He says that people need to learn how to be resilient. “Resilience is the ability to heal after a hurt. It’s the knowledge that bad things happen in this world, but just because bad things happen, it doesn’t mean you’re bad. People who lack resilience are people who invest too much negative meaning in what has happened to them. They obsess on the dark side of their psyche. They focus on why the knocks happened to them. They ask the fatal question:
Why does this have to happen to me?” (p 80)
We all have dark days. Autistic people also have dark days and learning to be resilient is hardest for them. The world is tough and it hits you hard. And you have to fight it with everything you’ve got. Gigi Jordan could not:
A few weeks ago a terrible story unfolded in a posh midtown Manhattan hotel where a 49-year-old mother, Gigi Jordan, was found “babbling and incoherent” beside the body of her eight-year-old son Jude, dead from an apparent overdose of ground up prescription pills, including Ambien and Xanax. Later it was revealed Jude was autistic.
In his press conference, the stunned and shattered father, estranged from his ex-wife and son for the last two years, said he had no idea what provoked his ex-wife to kill their child. “To be honest, she was the most wonderful mother I’ve ever seen. She left her business, left everything, just to take care of Jude.” Her oldest friend, Dr. Marcus Conant said, “She went to clinics all over the country looking for new treatments, grasping at straws, trying to fix the problem.”
The kind of hopelessness that Gigi faced might have been averted. Also new as a single mother, I know those nights when I feel I have no one to call upon. In those moments, I know I have to pull myself together again and remember that it’s always darkest before the dawn. It doesn’t have to be Adam that can make me feel this way. It could be a separation, a loss of a loved one.
Mike Lipkin would agree:
“One of the greatest sources of stress afflicting the people who come to us is the discontinuity that prevails everywhere. Just when our clients thought they had finally figured out a pattern, the pattern splintered into pieces again.” (p. 88) That pattern in the autism world is expectation. If we expect our children to change, to be fixed, to adapt easily, we cannot be resilient parents.
Mike suggests that we “sketch out many different paths” in our minds to “create an array of different possibilities.” He reminds us that not only is life unstable but that “as human beings, we have deep-rooted desire for certainty and stability, ” and quotes Francis Bacon who nearly 400 years ago said, “If a man begins with certainties, he shall end in doubts. But if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.”
In autism too, there are no certainties. The article that talks about Gigi, talks about how the autistic brain “hardens” at the age of eight, and it would make any parent want to cry if you’ll believe it. Again, the article is somewhat misleading. It’s only through misleading expectations that a child must be fixed before the age of eight or all is lost that sends many parents into a tailspin like Gigi. Not only is this inaccurate about autistic people, but it’s this type of limited thinking that can stifle us and make us feel hopeless.
I for one know that autistic people continue to learn and the possibilities are endless as they are for any human being. Instead, as Adam also turns eight this April, I will ask myself how Adam and I can make a difference in the lives of others who are also on this path. For helping others and having this self-ascribed mission helps us. We have opportunities to learn. Every hard-knock and experience is another opportunity to learn. We get our hard-knocks every single day every time a school or a program doesn’t appreciate the special contributions Adam can make to the world. It’s enough to make me want to start my own school — and I know many other parents feel the same way (can we harness this energy??).
Do not listen to the media, but trust that your child is a human being filled with potential. The media will always be there, and sometimes it’s just a good idea to turn it off or give it a hearty guffaw because you will be tempted to feel sorry for yourself and this will deplete your capabilities as a parent. Become the kind of warrior that fends off the demons of the mind and the media. Remember that every child has difficult times and when our autistic children have them, we have to take deeper breaths, ask for help and figure out where this journey is supposed to take us alongside our children. While times seem a little easier for those with special needs, there’s a whole lot of discrimination still going on in our communities. WE have to change this together and support each other in our efforts.
“So once again, here’s one unchanging Life Principle over and over again,” says Mike. “You need a Still Mind to think through the confusion and noise. The only way you can master the cacophony on the outside is to have harmony on the inside. Without inner harmony and quiet, you cannot have a Strong Heart. And without a Strong Heart, where are you going to find the resources to not only brave the darkness, but lead others as well?” (p. 90).
It looks like all of us have to lead. It is also important to stop listening to others and begin believing in ourselves and our children. We are forging ahead with a new demand in this world and that demand is that our children be integrated into our communities. For this, we need to be brave.
Adam and I had a tough weekend adapting, still, to his new home. So much so that I’ve asked his aide to bring him home early so we can begin implementing fun activities here and teach him some structure. It is my hope that he will swagger on his turf soon and we can both get back on the path of working on our mission which is to help others along in the Inclusion Process.
Yesterday morning, after a very dark night, I stopped my inner fight. I leaned in to Adam (who has difficulty speaking but not always understanding), and modeled language (this means that I say a sentence that he might wish to say himself in order to show him that I understand) while he was trying to soothe himself by playing on the computer. “I’m not feeling well, Mommy,” I said in a soft sweet voice. Immediately, Adam stopped what he was doing, came over and leaned his head of feather-hair into my arms for a hug, and we remained like that for a while. As the day wore on, Adam became calmer and things got a little better.
This morning, the sun came out and his happy grin made me shine inside. If we can hold on, the sun will come out again and the possibilities are endless. But you have to believe it. I hope by sharing a bit of our story and adding some inspirational words from my friend Mike, I have helped anyone who is reading this a little too.
For more reading on how to cope with dark days and how to take care of yourself in order to care for your child:
Still Mind, Strong Heart by Dr. Bernard Levinson and Mike Lipkin (not specifically on autism but created for inspiration)
More Than A Mom by Amy Baskin and Heather Fawcett
Autism Acceptance and Survival Guide by Susan Senator
Other Back to Basics Autism Books:
The Autism Answer Book by William Stillman
Ten Things Every Child With Autism Wishes You Knew by Ellen Notbohm
Autism Handbook for Parents: Facts and Strategies for Parenting Success by Janice E. Janzen
Parenting Your Complex Child, by Peggy Lou Morgon