Sons with autism teach compassion, empathyPrint This Post Jul 25th, 2008 | By admin | Category: Coping
We have all witnessed the typical grocery store meltdown. A small child begs for a new toy or bag of candy. The parent says no. Suddenly the child is kicking and screaming on the ground, back arched, full tantrum mode. The terrible twos. We’ve all been there. In fact, among parents, it is almost expected.
What is not expected — or accepted for that matter — is when a child continues this behavior well beyond the appropriate “tantrum window.” Passers-by begin to stare and glare. Comments are muttered and sometimes said right out loud. “If that was my child …”
The comments are usually directed at the parents. I know, because I’ve heard more than a fair share. I used to want to explain, “I’m not a horrible mother; my child has autism.” But after trying to do just that, and being told, “Don’t give me your pity party,” I’ve learned to cut my losses and head for the door.
My husband and I have been blessed with two children with autism. When our boys were diagnosed five years ago, the odds of having a child born with autism was 1 in 10,000. Today, that number is 1 in 150 … 1 in 93 for boys.
Back then, autism wasn’t as prevalent as it is today. The only reference I had to autism was Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man.” So when we first became concerned about our boys’ development, the thought of autism never occurred. Since the boys didn’t sit rocking for hours, even the professionals I sought out didn’t consider autism. “Give it some time, and quit comparing your boys with your friends’ children,” we were told.
It would have been really easy to stop right there, with the doctor telling us what we wanted to hear. But my gut told me there was more than just a little delay. My boys were wired differently.
Technically, autism is a neurological disorder that affects the way the brain interprets and communicates information. In real life, autism manifests itself in social skills or lack thereof. As a “spectrum disorder,” no two children with autism are alike. Case in point: our boys.
Jake, 10, has a very pronounced speech delay, meaning he has a hard time finding his words, and when he does, they are often not used in the proper context. This morning, while the boys were having their breakfast, 8-year-old Drew kept reading the Sunday comics out loud, which drives Jake crazy. Jake said, “Stop! You’re ignoring me.” I said, “I think you mean ‘annoying me,’ ” and then explained the difference.
Drew, on the other hand, has amazing speech, but few original thoughts of his own. The majority of his speech is retelling stories he has read or other things he has memorized. But this kind of memory will only take you so far. Ask Drew a question that starts with “how” or “why” and he goes silent. Drew also doesn’t possess “cause and effect,” which means when he crosses a street, he never contemplates the thought: Look to see if any cars are coming. He can’t process the concept of consequences, which is why he wears a device called a “Care Tracker.” If Drew is ever missing, I can dial 9-1-1 and the search and rescue folks will come out and attempt to pick up the transmitter’s signal. A GPS it is not, but it’s the best option currently available.
I don’t know what caused their autism, nor does anyone. What I do know is, our life is never boring.
It was two years ago on Mother’s Day when my then 6-year-old Drew decided to surprise me with a gift. He called me to the garage where I found him holding a can of spray paint. He had painted a blue racing stripe around my light tan colored car!
“Happy Mother’s Day!” he said. “How do you like it? It’s periwinkle. Your favorite color is periwinkle, Mom.” I honestly couldn’t say a word.
Oddly enough, the next Mother’s Day was just as eventful. The boys were putting their finishing touches on homemade cards when we heard a “Yeow!” I raced to the table to find Drew had stapled two of his fingers together. We considered the wire cutters, but closer inspection made us think it would be best to seek professional help.
Parents with children with autism have endless stories like these. And I share my stories with you not just to amuse, but to let you know I intentionally say I have children with autism, not autistic children. My boys are children first. They are children with autism second. Autism does not define them as individuals.
We all have quirks that make us unique and drive others crazy. People with autism have those quirks amplified. They don’t fit the mold. But really, who made the mold? I believe the more education we give to our community, the greater enrichment will come to all of our lives. I know that Jake and Drew have not only made me a better mother, but a better person as well. For having known and loved them, I am a more compassionate, understanding and accepting member of our community.
I am open with my children and others regarding autism in our family. Yes, both boys have been “labeled.” But with that label comes compassion and understanding from their classmates. They are accepted, encouraged and included more than I could have ever dreamed. By educating those around them, we have given their peers the tools to better understand and accept everyone, with and without disability.
In honor of Autism Awareness Month, I ask you to educate yourself and your family. Practice compassion and empathy. If we embrace our differences, rather than masking them to conform, we may just become a happier, gentler society.
BY ERIN LYNCH
* Erin Lynch lives in Yakima with her husband Rob and children Jake and Drew, both of whom have autism. She volunteers at Children’s Village with autism-program planning.