We were at the beach last week. My wife and I were standing ankle deep in the water watching our son, Eric, having a ball swimming and jumping over the waves. A group of three other kids ran up and started playing, splashing and chasing each other in the water. Eric gave them a passing glance and went about his business.

I saw it happen, as I’ve seen it happen countless times in the past. My wife has gotten skilled at crying behind her sunglasses so others can’t obviously see her pain. But I saw it. I have learned that there are times when there is nothing I can say or do. I just have to let the moment happen and dissipate naturally. That’s what I did. It took a few minutes. Then the moment lifted, and we went back to our quiet family swim in the ocean.

I think these moments are easier for me than for her because I am not a social butterfly. She is. Her greatest pleasures in life have come from gatherings with friends and social experiences with family. My greatest pleasures have come from quiet solitude and peaceful reflection by myself or with my wife. She sees my son’s lack of interest in his peers as him missing out on pleasure. I understand how she can see it that way. But I see it as simply taking my own introversion a step further. I want her to know that while he obviously needs to learn social skills and to be nudged out of his comfort zone into interacting with his peers, he is not necessarily deprived of pleasure from his lack of interest in these relationships.

I often joke that I could do a 10-year prison sentence with ease. I would be just fine stranded on a desert island for a while. For me, social interactions are work. It’s different for her. Her love for her son is one of God’s wonders. I want her to understand that he will be OK. I want her to trust that smile on his face when he is doing his own thing and not to feel sorry for him because he isn’t interested in chasing and throwing sand at his cousins. I want her to understand that, in so many ways, he is me… and look at the happiness I have found… with her.

The author hugging his wife after participating in a race

This post originally appeared on Bacon & Juice Boxes: Our Life With Autism.

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PB200076_1 My beautiful babies are about to turn 10 and 8. This brings me to a time of serious reflection. I’ve been watching the endless slideshow of photos on our computer, sobbing, remembering, loving, feeling grateful — all those emotions and more, at once.

It makes me remember our path towards an autism diagnosis for “Big Brudder.” You may or may not know that Big Brudder was born with a cleft lip and palate. We thought this would be our primary area of concern for him. For a long time it was. It still certainly occupies quite a bit of our parental thoughts and concerns, but little did we know, autism would become our main focus.

Big Brudder from very early on only liked to be held in a certain way. I would describe it as “snug.” He loved being swaddled and held firmly. He was always alert – looking around and sometimes through you it seemed. He progressed normally and hit his milestones on time, mostly. Except language. Here he was hyper verbal. He didn’t really babble much, perhaps because of the speech therapy he received for his cleft lip and palate. Or, it could be that we didn’t baby talk. He spoke in complete sentences and loved showing what he “knew,” which was a lot.

Beginning at his two-year checkup, I asked every year about autism. He was a toe-walker, he had a compulsion about lining up his toys a certain way, he would get lost in his own little world for hours at a time and not hear us, his food aversions were severe and the meltdowns… they could last for days. I was told every year, “He’s too social.” They didn’t see him at home. Yes, he interacted with us, but it wasn’t reciprocal. Until we had the “Wee One.”

The other day, the Wee One was in the midst of a rough patch. We talked through it, and then I told him this: “You know how Big Brudder sometimes (OK, a lot of times) seems lost in his own thoughts? Well, when he was almost 2 and you weren’t quite born yet, it was much more severe. We could call his name, we could talk to him and it was as if he couldn’t hear us. All of that changed when you came in to the world. Suddenly, Big Brudder was connected to someone in a way we hadn’t seen yet. He loved you more than he loved anyone before. I tell you this not to give you a burden but a gift. That is how much you are loved.”

The Wee One had tears rolling down his cherubic cheeks. I said, “Baby, what’s wrong?” The Wee One replied, “They are tears of joy. I want to tell this story to Big Brudder.”  To him I said, “Baby, this story is for you to hold in your heart. Hold it close now and always. Remember it when Big Brudder doesn’t seem to be listening. You are his best friend, forever.”

Happy Almost-Birthday, my loves.

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This post originally appeared on Autism in Our House.

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Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Wolfie.

I am half Bichon and half Shih-Tzu, also known as a Teddy Bear Dog or a Zuchon. I am sixteen and a half pounds and I barely stand a foot off the floor, but do not let my size fool you. I may be small, but I am mighty.

I’ve been with my family for five months now. Everyone keeps saying the Easter Bunny brought me as a surprise.

But I remember the two biggest people in the family—the mom and the dad people—came to pick me up in a conference center off the highway in a small town called Portsmouth. We drove around for hours and then snuck home because they said the kids were finally asleep. I never did see a bunny.

For the first two weeks I was home, I tried this strategy:

Pee on couch. Look adorable.

Poop on rug. Appear irresistible.

Pee on floor. Tilt head to one side with cutest expression possible.

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This went on for a while until the dad guy said I was on something called “thin ice” and I’d better get house trained soon. He had just stepped in one of my puddles wearing only his socks.

He pretends he doesn’t like me, this dad. But I’m not fooled by him. When it’s late at night and all the small people have gone to bed and the mom is upstairs reading, he sits on the big red couch, and he calls to me in a quiet voice.

“Wolf, come on boy, come sit with me.”

I sit next to him and we watch shows that the mom doesn’t like — baseball and politics and something weird called “The First 48.” But I can tell by the absentminded way he rubs my foot that he’s only half-listening to the television. Instead he’s thinking about his patients and his children and tax returns and healthcare and insurance.

There are a lot of people in this house. Seven. Two big people and five kids. One time a man came and delivered some food in a brown paper bag that smelled delicious. When he stepped into the kitchen and saw all the kids at the counter, he asked if we were having a birthday party.

The round boy laughed and shouted, “Yes!  It my birthday! Let’s sing HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME! Happy birthday to me!” until the mom said, “Okay, Henry, we heard you. Eat your egg roll.”

This Henry boy is the smallest, but he isn’t too small. Life is very, very exciting for him, and he is very loud about it allHe fills up every room with his chatter and his laughter and his drawings, and he is squishy and delicious and curious and smart. He is so alive, you can almost see his heart beating through his favorite Batman shirt.

There are all these boys and only one little girl. When you look at her you just think about the color pink. She is sweetness and light and airy and calm, like the most delicate wafer cookie you hold on your tongue until it melts.

But she works very hard. She is the first one awake to take me out in the morning, even before I ask, and all day long she is trying to do things for other people — pack their snacks or sweep the floor or straighten the playroom.

Her mother worries, and the dad guy hopes if he tells her how beautiful and smart and sweet she is, she will believe it forever and never listen if someone accuses her of being fat or ugly or stupid or worthless.

I’m not worried, because this pink girl is so very strong.

There is a very big boy, a boy who stands taller than the mom’s shoulder. He wears glasses. They call him a “tween” sometimes, and I don’t know what that means but it seems to annoy him.

He and the mom can really get each other going laughing. They both like the same jokes. But there is a strain that I don’t think was there before. It feels new.

It feels like the beginning of something and the end of something all at the same time. He is starting to cleave from them, to long for video games and something called an “iPhone” and movies that are PG-13. The mom, she knows this, and her heart is aching to make the most of the time she has left, before this tween will pack up his glasses and his gym shorts and his Nook and drive down the driveway to a faraway place called “college.”

I may be very close to the floor, but I see it all.

There’s another big boy, just about as tall as the first boy. He also wears glasses. From behind they look like the same boy and sometimes people mix them up, but I never do.

From what I understand, I was supposed to help this boy. He has something called “autism” and he was very, very afraid of dogs, even little ones like me.

When the mom first brought me in from the garage where I was hiding and trying to stay very, very quiet, all of the kids squealed and laughed and clapped their hands. But he didn’t. His face was all twisted up and his voice was very loud and angry-sounding.

“I DO NOT like dogs. You have ruined my life. With this dog.”

I don’t know anything about autism or how to help people who have it. So I just did the only thing I knew how: I waited. I waited and waited and one afternoon when no one was watching he crept over to where I was lying on the couch. With one finger he stroked my paw.

“You are. Soft.”

This boy gets very, very mad. One day over the summer his temper rose until it felt like the sun was shining inside the house, the rays too hot to touch. He was screaming and hitting his head over and over again.

“No para! I will not have a PARA!”

I did not know what a para is, but the mom seemed to because she kept talking softly, telling him to take a deep breath and calm down; they would talk about it.

He came for her then. With his fists curled into the tightest balls he charged her wordlessly. She grabbed his wrists and held them with her long fingers and said, “Enough Jack,” so sharply her voice was like a knife cutting through the hot, still room.

He dropped his arms to his sides, and the only sound was his whimpering, “no para no para, no para.” I barked once, twice, my voice not as sharp as hers — more like an ice cube clattering into a smooth glass.

He fell to his knees next to me and buried his fingers into the fur around my neck, where it’s longest and deepest. Through his fingertips, I understood. I knew. Somehow, because of this strange thing called a para, the boy felt different. He felt worried and alone and disappointed.

He felt less.

There is another boy. He looks just like the dad, with dark hair and deep brown eyes that make you think of chocolate. He is all fun, this one.

But every once in a while a shadow crosses his face, and his eyes get cloudy, like the rain is coming. That’s when I know he needs a little extra cuddle, and I just turn on my back so he can rub my soft, white belly. He rubs it until the sun shines again.

“Come on, Wolfie, run outside with me!”

A couple of weeks ago, the big yellow bus started coming around again. We all walked down to the bus stop and everyone was so excited.  But when the kids got on and the bus pulled away, the mom put her head on the dad guy’s shoulder and said, “Oh, Joe.”

Slowly the three of us walked back up the driveway. They looked down and started talking to me in a funny voice with funny words. “You a wittle doggy, wight?  Just a wittle pup-pup.”  I felt confused.

Then I understood. Their babies were gone. Now I was the baby.

boy playing outside with a dog Last weekend we all went to a big field to play with a black and white ball. The mom and dad kicked it around with the kids, but the second boy said he only wanted to hold my leash and run with me.

So we did. We ran and ran through the fields together. And with each big step he took I could tell, for the moment, he was free. Free of the shame and rage and confusion and panic that follow him around all day like uninvited guests.

Running by my side  through the rich green grass, he wasn’t a child with autism or a fifth grader with a para or a brother who is not like the rest.

He was, quite simply, just a boy and his dog.

This post originally appeared on CarrieCariello.com.

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Dear JetBlue Airlines,

I am writing this post to thank you.

My son is on the autism spectrum and, because of the custody arrangement between his father and me, we fly 7 to 9 times a year out of sheer necessity. Flying, with all of its loud announcements and crowded waiting areas and unusual smells, is quite frankly torture for him. He has acute sensory processing issues that affect us even in simple everyday situations, so you can imagine how complicated airports and airplanes are for us.

In the past, we have flown other airlines. It has not gone well. As my son was literally banging his head on the wall in the boarding area, I once had the gate agent question why I was asking for early boarding for a child clearly over 5. When I explained that the constant boarding announcements and large crowd were extremely difficult for us, she allowed me to board early but finished her interaction with me saying, “Just this once,” as if I were getting away with something.

(Incidentally, this occurred after I had already called the airline a week before to request this special service. After being put on hold and then transferred, I was told to just speak to the gate agent and it wouldn’t be a problem.)

Unfortunately, this has been the case with every airline we have flown… except with JetBlue.

I needed to fly my son home yesterday. I went online and determined that if we used an airport a bit further from our home, we would be able to try JetBlue.

I was immediately impressed that the JetBlue online booking system allowed me to include information about his special needs when I booked the ticket.

So simple. No expectation of calling and being put on hold. No extra requirements. No having to educate a phone representative about autism and sensory issues. Nope, I just checked a box and included a few comments.

That alone was worth the extra drive time to the airport with JetBlue.

I called ahead of time anyway (maybe because I just couldn’t believe it would be so easy). I spoke with a sweet, friendly phone rep who not only moved our seats to the middle of the plane when she heard the smells of the bathrooms are tough for my son, but she also informed me that she placed a note for “silent boarding” in our reservation. She told me that before a single announcement was made, the gate agent would come and personally escort us to the gate for essentially pre-preboarding.

No announcements. No huge line of harried travelers. No head banging before we even get on the plane.

When I hung up the phone, I was in relieved, grateful tears.

When we got to the airport yesterday and checked in, the agent asked if we would like a meet-and-assist to get through security more easily. I was floored.

I declined, because I know how busy your employees are, and my son really only requires assistance when it comes to the boarding area. We may not have used the service, but I was totally impressed by the offer.

Just before boarding,the gate agent sweetly escorted us to the gate as promised. We boarded the plane before anyone else and had my son’s headphones on before the noise and craziness of boarding the plane began.

Throughout the flight, your attendants also went out of their way to be understanding and kind. It was obvious they had been informed of the information in our reservation and were so gracious in ensuring my son was comfortable.

When he started to meltdown because he wanted a different drink than what was on the menu, the attendant told him he would wait as long as necessary for him to make another decision – no rush. My son calmed down, smiled and ordered a ginger ale.

It was exactly what he needed.

So, thank you.

Thank you from an already overwhelmed, tired, fighting-for-her-son-every-day-of-her-life momma.

Thank you on behalf of an 11-year-old boy who struggles to cope in a world that just doesn’t understand or easily accommodate him.

Thank you from a now lifetime JetBlue customer.

With much respect and gratitude,

Shawna

(Dear Readers – Please know, I wrote this out of sheer gratitude. This is in no way an advertisement for JetBlue nor was I compensated in any way for this post. I do think you should fly them – every single time you fly. But that’s just my opinion based on my own experience described above.)

This post originally appeared on Not the Former Things.

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One woman is using the power of photography to give families affected by autism a much-needed sense of community.

In 2005, photographer Charles Cotugno started a small portrait project called “Stories of Autism.” In 2009, it became an official nonprofit organization, and in 2011, photographer Carrie Anciaux took the project to the next level.

In her three years with the project, she’s photographed 40 subjects. Each portrait includes a place for subjects’ families to write their story on Anciaux’s blog.

 “A few words that define Wiley are: awesome big brother, lover of Thomas the Train, considerate, smart, and excitable. One word that does not define him: autism.”
— Shelly, Wiley’s mother

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“We have learned to celebrate the small moments of parenting.”
— Sarah and Jack, Lyla’s parents

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Anciaux is a speech and language pathologist who took a few years off to do photography full-time.

“I found [‘Stories of Autism’] online by accident,” she told The Mighty in a phone interview. “I thought it was great for me because it combined my two interests, photography and working with people with special needs.”

Although Anciaux doesn’t have a child with autism, she says she can’t help but recognize the impact her work has on families that do.

“I’ve noticed mostly that this project gives families a voice — a chance to explain to the world how autism affects their lives, daily,” Anciaux told The Sun Prairie Star. “I know some families hope that, by writing their story, it may increase tolerance in the community for people who are different than them.”

On Aug. 2, Anciaux organized the second annual picnic for the “Stories of Autism” subjects at her home in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. About 75 people got together to engage in a bevy of autism-friendly activities like pony rides, a bouncy house and face painting, according The Star. The event ended with everyone releasing butterflies to symbolize the spread of autism acceptance.

“[The project] is much bigger than me,” Anciaux told The Mighty. “I’m just trying to take it to the next level.”

She continues to seek subjects with autism for her blog to spread awareness and give families an outlet to express the powerful emotions they experience every day.

“This has been great for myself too. I like meeting nice families who deal with these challenges every day,” Anciaux said. “I find that most stories have a theme which is ‘gratitude.’ The small moments in the day when it’s kind of successful and something to celebrate. I think that’s taught me a lot too as a mom.”

You can view more of Anciaux photos below and on her blog.

“If you have a disability, you might have an enhanced ability that hasn’t been disabled.”
— Morton Jr.

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“He emotes without a filter. He loves deeply. He trusts wholeheartedly. He is not bashful, meek or timid. He is himself 100 percent of the time.”
— Sarah and Jesse, Aaron’s parents

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“We think the sky’s the limit for our boys.”
— Kate, Jack’s mom

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“Be the best advocate for your child as you can be.”
— Angie, Brody’s mom

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All photos courtesy of Carrie Anciaux Photography.

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We recently went to visit a family friend (Uncle M.) at his apartment. This particular friend became blind as a baby and wears sunglasses and uses a walking cane. In the 20+ years I have known him, I don’t remember him ever once complaining about it or feeling sorry for himself. In fact, he is one of the most independent men I have ever met! He is the sweetest man ever and the hubby and I think of him as a brother and the kids think of him as an uncle. Uncle M. has owned his own place for over 20 years, has a full-time job in Washington, D.C. (he takes the subway), has tons of friends, a girlfriend and can play the drums (he played at our wedding).

Anyways, Dominic made himself at home and started running around in the apartment. We were telling him to stop, but it wasn’t until Uncle M. told him, Be careful, buddy!” that he actually did. Since we were visiting around dinner time, we were debating whether to go out or order carry-out. We opted to go out for dinner at a favorite pizza place nearby. Dominic and Uncle M. sat next to each other at the table, and I was sitting across from them. I was a little concerned, because I usually sit right next to Dominic to make him feel comfortable and to kind of keep him “in line.” We really didn’t need to be concerned or worried. Throughout the meal, Dominic snuggled up next to Uncle M. multiple times. They both were definitely enjoying the yummy pizza. When we went back to drop off Uncle M. at his apartment, since it was late, we decided to say our goodbyes in the parking lot. When Dominic gathered us all in for a “group hug” and started singing, “I love you, you love me” from “Barney,” I felt like I needed a tissue.

Uncle M. doesn’t “see” Dominic as a child with an Autism Spectrum Disorder, and Dominic doesn’t “see” Uncle M. as a man who is blind. I think often about what it must be like to see the world through Dominic’s “eyes.” I know one thing — Dominic can immediately pick up on how comfortable someone is around him. I’m guessing Uncle M. can too. I wonder how many people have judged him, solely based on the fact that he is blind. I thought it was super duper awesome when we went to the restaurant to eat pizza and not one person stared at him (or Dominic).  Sadly, though, many in our society “see” the special needs first and then the person.

Wouldn’t it be awesome if it was the other way around?

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This post originally appeared on bountifulplate.

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