What autism has taught me about parenting

It’s been one year since my son was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. And that year has been filled with challenges and successes alike.

When we started the process of diagnosis for my son, my aunt told me we were about to be thrown into a PhD course on autism. I heard a speaker on autism last year who after all three of her sons were diagnosed, decided to go back to school to study autism.

Parenting a child with autism requires training. Everything you think you know about raising your child gets flipped on its head. Suddenly everything you do must be carefully thought out and planned. Things you used to do without thinking need a preamble. You can’t turn on your favorite song without first considering what kind of mood your child is in. Even offering the wrong food could send them into a meltdown.

But just like any other child with individual challenges and unique strengths, there are things you learn as the parent of an autistic child that can’t be taught by anyone but your child themselves.

1. Even the smallest milestone is a big deal

Anyone who has had a child behind in any area of development can relate to this. Milestones you barely notice in a typical child become huge celebrations for an atypical one.

Here’s one example. I don’t remember the first time my daughter started pointing. It kinda just happened. But I remember clearly the first time Bryan pointed to a picture in a book. I even remember which book it was. We’d been working on it for awhile. It was a big moment. There was lots of shouting and clapping. I called my mom to tell her about it. I urged him to show off his new skill to anyone who would watch.

2. “Annoying” childhood behaviors are important social skills

Everyone laughs about the “no” stage. When your toddler first learns to say no and turns it into a game, saying no to everything. It’s hilarious and yes, can be annoying. The first time Bryan played the no game I cried. He was interacting with me in a deliberate social way. I loved every moment of the “no” stage. An autistic child trying to illicite a certain reaction from someone is a big deal, and all those chasing and not listening games are huge steps.

3. Patience. Patience. Patience.

This was probably one of the earliest lessons we had to learn as parents. Having a child who cannot express why they’re upset when they’re old enough to be more independent is terribly frustrating. For them and for us.

One evening, Bryan signed to me that he was hungry. I offered him everything in our kitchen, only to have him meltdown with every option. I had no idea what he wanted. And he had no idea how to tell me. I sat on the floor with him wailing on the ground in front of me and called my mom sobbing. My mom helped brainstorm with me ways to help him calm down. I had to give up on finding him something to eat and just patiently wait out the meltdown with him. Nothing was going to fix it, I just had to ride it out with him. It’s hardest to be patient when your child is clearly in distress, and you think you know the answer. But meltdowns are like anxiety attacks. They can’t be solved by providing something the child wants. You have to give their nervous system a chance to cool down.

4. Don’t take anything for granted

Every 3 word sentence. Every hug. Every dance party. They’re all treasures.

For a while Bryan called me “duck.” We worked hard for months to get him to learn “mom.” I remember the first time he called me mom. He was 2 1/2. I was in bed and he crawled in with me and layed staring at the ceiling. Then he turned his head, looked right at me and said, “mom.”

Every time he says mom, my heart fills with joy. Max and I have a look we give each other, its our “not taking it for granted” look. The look we give when Bryan does anything we worked hard for. When he says mom. When he points. When he plays a social game with us. When he plays pretend with toy dinosaurs. When he calls his sister by name.

People often say to us, “oh, he’s just like a normal kid though.” Everything you see in him that seems just like a regular kid is something we fought for. Something he worked hard for. And something we had to discover how to teach him. And it’s the most important thing I’ve had to learn how to do.

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