Our Cha-Cha Dance With Autism


This is my happy place. This is what wakes me up in the morning; it’s what turns my frowns upside down and what makes me a better human. This is my family.

I love this photo. We had been wandering through an exhibition. Just before we made our exit, we were ushered into line for our turn in the photo booth. We were crammed in like tuna fish awaiting instruction… Was it the stark white interior, the singular menacing lens staring at us from the opposite side of the booth, or the high-pitched shrill of the camera’s operator? Whatever it was, when we found ourselves on the business end of a camera flash, our individual personalities shone through and were captured in an instant.

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The strange bald fellow on the left is yours truly, the stunner on the right is my wife, Leigh, and in the middle, well, that little guy is our son, Nicholas. Oh, and the one with the wings is Rip. He and Nicholas have been inseparable for around six months so at this point, he is family, too.

Pardon me if I sound conceited, but I love us! We are different colors, Leigh and Nic grow hair on their heads and I grow it from the bottom of my lip (sadly… more recently the tops of my ears too)… one of us even has a pair of wings! But besides the physical differences, we are all blessed with a good old fashioned dollop of quirkiness, making us a force to be reckoned with on any family outing. We are all a little different and strangely, these differences have kept us together.

Our son, Nicholas, was diagnosed on the autism spectrum a few months shy of seven years ago. When I think back on years past, man, we have come a long way. Our routine is silky smooth. Wait, it’s probably more “cha-cha-esque.” When we are on top of things, we masterfully take our two steps forward. When we suffer a setback, we take a step backward, but somewhat gracefully and in time with life’s music.

Obviously it wasn’t always like this… in the beginning, we flipped and flopped around. All three of us in a little over our heads, less cha-cha and more an awkward dance troupe found in the blooper reel of a ’90s reality dance show.

Autism can be a dance full of challenges, but we all have our challenges, don’t we? The point is, we became better with practice. We simply needed to find our groove, individually and as a family.

Unfortunately, life is not all dance competitions and photo booths. The very people that I am so devoted to can overwhelm and be overwhelmed. Trust me, I am a self-confessed helicopter parent. Sometimes I annoy myself… We have all found our escape when the going gets tough. Leigh disappears into her music; my kid finds comfort in sculpting dragons and planes from anything he can lay his hands on. I ride a unicycle.

Importantly, we have learned to give each other some breathing room. Enough room to be different, to be ourselves, and enough to three-point-turn back to each other.

My name is Shaun Murphy. I love my family.

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