We’ve officially just passed our first year with an ASD diagnosis.
It’s sometimes hard to believe that it was only a year ago that we first got sucker-punched with the announcement that our 4 yr old son (at the time) was on the spectrum. This year became a test of everything. A test of our patience, a test on our marriage, a test on our ability to learn, to cope, to support, to stay positive, and ultimately to keep laughing.
For those of you new to a diagnosis, here is a snapshot of what might happen within the first year of discovering your child has Autism. (NB: I’m being brutally honest here in hopes to pass on a realistic viewpoint and let you know that you are not alone)
First 2-3 months: Feels like you’re in a foggy haze. I have seen people react many different ways to a diagnosis. Self-pity, frustration, anger, heartbreak. As much as I tried to be positive, there were still moments I felt like I wanted to scream. I couldn’t comprehend why us, didn’t think he was really that far off from regular kids to be defined as Autistic, embarrassed by how often when someone asked me about it I couldn’t hold it together. There will be many tears, often from frustration as you fumble through trying to figure out what you are supposed to do (especially when it comes to finding support and school). You might feel useless, overwhelmed, sad, disappointed and still completely (if not more so) madly in love with your child.
A dear friend gave us a copy of The first 100 Days by Autism Speaks. It helped. Although my husband and I are both Do’ers- I’m an event planner and he’s a project manager and we didn’t get the sit back and process mode, instead stupidly tried to project manage the Autism right out of our little guy.
The next 4-8 months: Once we finally got to the realization that indeed our son was Autistic, that this was going to be a lifelong venture and we needed to start adjusting the how to’s in managing his success, we (or should I say I more so than my husband) had a really difficult time informing people of T’s ASD diagnosis. It felt often that people were a bit stunned and didn’t know what to say..choosing to say something like “well, he doesn’t seem Autistic to me” (hated that)..or gave us that dreaded pity look (hated that more). Then there are those friends who say something brilliant and just help you get through. Best examples of peeps we love and their originality that helped so much..
J- Simply said “Oh..so he’ll be an engineer” That matter of fact..like ASD would help guide his career path to a place where other socially awkward folks might hang out..that there was a pre-existing destination that would be completely accepting of the way he functions
G- Who sent a lovely email with “I don’t know what to say” (love her honesty) and that she was there..on call…standing by if we needed her.
T- Who let me just bawl and agreed it sucked and let me rant to her more than once and asked me how I felt…that rarely happened and I would rarely talk to anyone how I was feeling but T and I are that kind of veritable friend soul mate..who can call you out, ask you tough questions and you love them for it
W-Who is one of the most generous hearts I know and also has had a ton of experience in Autism given that she has family who are as well. She was the greatest listener and advice giver ever. Having a ton of wonderful matter of fact conversations that helped me better understand what Autism is all about.
In this time period, we also felt the massive and crushing experience of “working” with the school system to get T some help. It blows my mind how often we heard “the squeaky wheel gets the oil”…and they’re right. Chris and I are both very much sit in the camp of you get more bees with honey but this is one example I can truly say, YOU GOTTA FIGHT! FOR YOUR RIGHT…to have your children supported in school. Many parents who went before me with the an ASD diagnosis, kept telling me to advocate for my son. I truly didn’t know what that meant until dealing with his education. It felt like a battle from the word go.. and we have to say we are incredibly fortunate to have a principal we feel supports us and lucked out with an EA who T and another boy share. The key issue..budget. There is 4X as many Autism diagnosis than in 2002 in our province and yet they have not changed the budget significantly to manage how many kids are needing help.This is something I plan to go on a crusade about once we get our lives in order.
Another key change we did was coordinate help. We went to the Triple P parenting class offered by the Geneva Centre for Autism, which I highly recommend for a number of reasons. 1) You get to talk to other parents who are having similar struggles at home 2) The videos might be a bit hokey but they give you great foundations to work with not only your special needs children but parenting in general 3) You start developing a series of strategies for managing through the day to day to keep your spirits high and your energy focused on the positive. We also worked with an Occupational Therapist to look at ways to help him manage (we discovered he is a deep sensory kid and that a really big squeeze hug will help often when he gets overwhelmed). It also explained a lot why he doesn’t like certain textures..(right now jeans are on the outs) as the OT explained for him, its more like sandpaper than comfort..and why he gets really excitable in loud scenarios (his hearing is super sensitive as well) One of our worst moments was in the midst of a fire alarm. A situation I will never forget. The most valuable we are finding is working with a Speech Pathologist. She has made incredible strides with T in making eye contact when he is talking, taking time to think through what he is saying and learning how to be quiet and not talk..something I didn’t realize how important until we started using this as a technique at home. When he is really excited, we put our finger to our lips (for quiet), gesture for him to focus on what we are pointing at and wait quietly while he accomplishes the task. I tell you, getting dressed went from hellish to happy simply by using that strategy.
8-12 months: I think it wasn’t until then that I was actually able to get out the words Special Needs without cringing at the response I was about to get from people. We still get the pity look but I now realize that its simply because they don’t understand. Who I did feel totally got it was all the teachers in my life. One, an old friend from high school, Jamie M simply asked was kind of savant quality had and talked about the 5 kids he has in his class (this makes total sense as he is an absolute ham and would completely “GET” an Autistic sense of humour). The other, my cousin, shared a beautiful poem with us about truly understanding Autism in the form of the Night Before Christmas. It made me cry but also made me realize how she and many others are part of that quiet strength we have in our corner. Friends and family are what you need to help you get through sometimes. Talking is good.
Speaking of talking, the one thing I can’t stress enough is to keep the dialogue open with your spouse. As I was initially researching Autism, I came across a stat that 80% of marriages with special needs end in divorce. It freaked the crap out of me. So a key thing we concentrated on was keeping our relationship strong to be able to stay strong as a family. We set up and maintained date nights, met at the kitchen table for wine, tears and conversation, banded together to fight the school system. We are (what I would say) one of the strongest “teams” around and even then we faltered on occasion- getting frustrated at each other because of being frustrated with the system or bottling up the heartache we had that life wasn’t going to be ordinary in certain ways. That T might or might not do well in team sports, social situations, school..but talking about it and sharing our struggles made sure that neither of us felt alone in this journey. Check out Our Son Destined for a Team for our perspective on sports.
One Year Later
Life is moving forward and we are seeing some great progress in T’s development.I was starting to feel like he was really behind in the way he interacted with kids but he is starting to integrate a ton better and we are working on social situations. In speaking with his support team at daycare/school, turns out he has lots of friends and in that beautiful way that kids are, when he starts getting upset, they somehow have figured out strategies to keep him relaxed throughout the day. (They gave us a great example of T starting to get agitated and one little girl coming over and handing him a train to hold onto…seriously, I turned into a mushy mess in the middle of the meeting).
To anyone out there who might have recently received an ASD diagnosis, it will get better. You will learn to adjust to the changes in your life and the grieving period will start to subside. You might be surprised by how much of a protector, fighter, lover, or comedian you will become. It will likely change you somehow. If it does, be sure to figure out what you need to get through. For me, its been exercise and laughter and an invaluable support system behind us.
Make yourself strong. Mentally, Physically, Spiritually…so that you can help your kids have the best adventure of their life.